Jordan Fights Pressure to Shut Port

King Hussein returns from US visit bitterly disappointed; says Arab sovereignty is at stake

IN 1925, British warships besieged this tiny Red Sea beachfront town to force a defiant Sherif Hussein to either give up his dream of an independent unified Arab world or yield his throne and power. The sherif - King Hussein's great-grandfather - preferred to abandon his throne rather than concede to British and French control of the Arab nation. He became a poor, but proud exile in Cyprus. Now the modern port of Aqaba is again under a US-led blockade to enforce a United Nations embargo against Iraq.

As key to United States efforts to impose a naval blockade against Iraq, Jordan has come under enormous political and economic pressures to close the port. The campaign has already reduced traffic at the once-bustling docks to a minimum.

In Amman yesterday, a Jordanian official said the US Navy had turned back a ship on its way to pick up 800 Sudanese refugees from Kuwait. But Aqaba port officials said an Iraqi cargo ship carrying food managed to slip through the blockade Saturday night. Meanwhile, the US Navy said its ships had fired warning shots across the bows of two Iraqi tankers in regional waters and were pursuing the Iraqis after they refused to halt.

King Hussein's short visit to the US appeared to have had very limited success in alleviating US pressure. Not only did a determined President Bush ignore Hussein's insistence that all problems in the region - particularly the Israeli-Arab conflict - should receive the same attention as the Gulf crisis; but the Jordanian delegation was reportedly humiliated. According to Arab diplomats, the king and his delegation had to wait 33 sleepless hours for a meeting with the president.

An exhausted and distressed Hussein warned Jordanians in a televised speech upon his return that the Arab World is at a dangerous crossroads: ``Either this nation advances towards its goal to live in dignity ... or, God forbid, it moves towards darkness, jeopardizing all of the achievements of its fathers and sons.''

Hussein apparently feels that he is facing the same predicament as his great-grandfather. Like Sherif Hussein, he believes that the sovereignty of the Arab world is at stake.

In the view of Western diplomats in the region, the shrewd king has committed a serious mistake by allying himself so closely with someone as ``indefensible'' as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

``He must have been misled by bad advice or miscalculations,'' a Western diplomat says.

But the Jordanian perspective of the whole affair is completely different. A total embargo against Iraq, which involves the closure of Aqaba port, will not only amount to ``suicide,'' according to Jordanian economists, but is viewed here as the last straw in a long sequence of unbalanced American policies in the region.

``Mounting opposition here to an embargo does not simply stem from fear of an inevitable economic disaster, but also from resentment against consistent US selectivity and double standards in responding to acts of aggression in the area,'' says a former close associate of the king.

For Jordan, a traditional ally of the US, the contrast between the forceful US reaction to the Iraqi takeover of Kuwait and the 23-year-old Israeli occupation of Arab territories is yet another confirmation of long-held beliefs here about ``US hypocrisy.''

Jordanian officials point to the long record of American vetoes killing UN resolutions to pressure Israel to withdraw from Arab territories as an example of US selectivity in dealing with problems in the region.

``King Hussein believes confining sanctions to Iraq while ignoring Israeli violations of international law will leave the area at the mercy of Israel and release uncontrollable extremism,'' says a Jordanian commentator who was among a small group briefed by the king Saturday.

During his brief visit to the US, Hussein communicated to President Bush Jordan's willingness to adhere to the UN sanctions against Baghdad. But he vehemently rejected the idea of blockading the port of Aqaba.

A senior Arab diplomat says the US has agreed to consider potential losses to Jordan's from any blockade of Aqaba. A Jordanian economist estimates that the country's losses will exceed $1.5 billion in the first year alone if the port is completely blocked.

Political analysts dismissed speculation that Western financial reinvestment was likely to alter the king's opposition to the presence of US troops in the Gulf.

``It's a war of wills,'' says a Jordanian analyst who saw the king Saturday. ``Despite the American ability to squeeze Jordan, officials here believe that Washington would not go as far as undermining the regime, for fear of a more radical alternative.''

Sources close to the government say, Hussein will continue playing for time, encouraged by what he sees as signs of increasing internal US and international criticism of heavy US military involvement in the region.

``But if Washington decides to force him Hussein into a corner, he is unlikely to retreat. His option will be no different than that of his great-grandfather,'' says Jamal Shaer, a former Jordanian minister.

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