Jordan's call for volunteers to fight Iran misfires

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The Palestinian professor lowered his voice and glanced around the room -- more to enhance the conspiratorial atmosphere than out of real fear of being snooped upon.

''Look,'' he whispered, ''why get more involved in that stupid war with Iran. What do we get out of it? If a Palestinian wants to fight, let him fight for Palestine.''

His is not the only opinion like this in Jordan. King Hussein's recent decision to form a Jordanian volunteer force to fight on the side of the Iraqi Army is being greeted in this quiet, subdued capital city with quiet skepticism. Palestinians especially, who make up more than 50 percent of the kingdom's population, are questioning the idea.

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Since the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in September 1980, Palestinians here and elsewhere in the Arab world have been critical of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for invading Iran.

The decision to attack revolutionary Iran was seen as opportunistic and shortsighted. It was criticized by leading Palestinians for diverting attention away from Arab confrontation of Israel. With new worries that Israel is prepared to attack Palestinians in southern Lebanon -- and also possibly Syria and Jordan -- deeper Jordanian involvement in the Gulf war is seen as misplaced priorities.

The Jordanian government is hesitant to answer questions about the numbers signing up for the King's new ''Yarmuk'' force (named after a decisive Arab battle against Byzantium in the 8th century) or about what sorts of bonuses are being promised. Judging by conversations with Jordanians from various walks of life, however, there does not appear to be a flood of volunteers.

But, if official accounts are any indication, quite a war chest is being collected.

Major Jordanian businesses and labor unions are reported daily to be sending money to support the force -- the Jordanian Petroleum Refinery Company donating

Jordanian minister of religious affairs and holy places, Kamil Sharif Feb. 6 called on Muslim preachers to contribute money to the contingent and to ''facilitate the collection of contributions for fraternal Iraq, which is defending the eastern front of the Arab homeland.'' Several Jordanians say preachers in the mosques are supporting the Yarmuk cause in Friday sermons.

But professors and students at Jordan University on the outskirts of Amman say there is as yet little enthusiasm for the idea among those who might be considered candidates.

''They don't believe in it,'' says one teacher. ''Yesterday Iraq was our enemy, today it is our friend. No, it is very confusing. How can you believe enough to go and give your life for this war?''

The Jordanian government has not yet shown it is planning to change such thinking through a concerted recruiting effort. Newspapers talk of support for the volunteer force, but do not urge sign ups. And the government spokesmen seem to be avoiding reporters who are following up the story.

As to the dissidents' charge that sending men to Iraq is a ''diversion of attention'' in the face of a possible Israeli military move in the area this spring, government officials argue that Israel and Iran are in collusion and the Arab world is being squeezed between them.

But reports that Israel is assisting Iran are dismissed by dissidents. Says one: ''Look, the Iranians need weapons. They will get them from whoever will sell. Israel is not the only place. They are fighting a war.''

Yet despite this sub rosa criticism, the prevailing mood on campus and off, among critics, is more bemusement with the Yarmuk force idea, not anger. Nor is the dissent likely, given the delicate political situation of Palestinians in Jordan, to be translated into resistance.

''After all,'' says a Western diplomat, ''it is only a volunteer force, not the Jordanian Army that is being sent.''

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