Jordan's Hussein in Balancing Act

King tries to avoid war, economic collapse as popular pressure mounts to help Iraqis

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

AS the Gulf war enters its third week, Jordan's King Hussein is coming under enormous international and domestic pressure which is pulling him in two different directions. On the one hand, according to Jordanian officials, the country's refusal to support the coalition forces arrayed against Iraq is leading Jordan's already weak economy toward collapse. At the same time, popular pressure to give more support to the Iraqi people is growing.

So far, the king has successfully reconciled two difficult objectives: keeping his country out of the war and remaining firm in his opposition to the coalition attacks on Iraq.

The most serious form of pressure, Jordanian officials believe, was the attacks by coalition planes early last week against Jordanian civilian vehicles and nine oil tankers on the highway between Baghdad and the Jordanian border. The government said four Jordanians were killed and several injured.

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Foreign Minister Taher al-Masri protested the attack to the United States ambassador in Jordan, describing it as a violation of the Geneva conventions. ``We have an agreement with the United Nations that excludes [oil] imports from Iraq [because of an international embargo],'' he told parliament. The UN has approved oil imports from Iraq despite the embargo, although officials in Amman yesterday reportedly requested that Syria supply the oil.

Mr. Masri, however, said that Jordan will not change its position on opposing the attack against Iraq. ``If this [attack was] intended to make us change our position, it will not.... We will keep to our principles,'' he vowed.

Although officials say Jordan is trying not to be drawn into the war for fear of an Israeli invasion, Masri warned that Jordan reserved the right to fight back if air raids against civilians and oil tankers were repeated.

Another means of pressure Jordan believes it has been subjected to has been the decline of foreign financial aid to the kingdom. Officials say that Jordan has not received any of the pledged aid from European countries while the US and Saudi Arabia - once its two main financial backers - have stopped the flow of aid to the country.

Jordan's only port of Aqaba is under de facto blockade by US and other coalition navies. Jordanian officials say the country is finding it difficult to secure the import of food stuffs and medicine as importers fear the goods will find their way to Iraq.

Real wages have been cut to one-third of their value; unemployment stands at 15 percent and is expected to reach 40 percent; many factories have reportedly closed down. Remittances from Jordanians working in the Gulf states - which once constituted 80 percent of foreign-currency income - have halted.

``This is a bankrupt country,'' says an Arab diplomat.

On the other hand, as the raids against Iraq continue many Jordanians feel that King Hussein should take practical steps to help Iraq and some are even pressuring the government to engage actively in war.

According to analysts, political enthusiasm for Iraq by far overrides frustrations at the rapidly deteriorating standard of living.

``All sectors and all classes have been hurt without exception,'' says Hani Hourani an expert on Jordanian socio-economic development. ``But the most striking aspect of all is that Jordanians are not only willing to cope with the hardships but are actually involved in an extensive fund-raising campaign for the Palestinian intifadah [uprising] and the Iraqi people.''

All sectors of Jordanian society and Palestinians in the refugee camps have engaged in the fund-raising campaign. Specifically, people are sending trucks of milk, flour, and medicine to Iraq, while Jordanian physicians are volunteering to serve in Iraqi hospitals.

Jordan's political groups and professional, students and women's unions, launched a series of solidarity activities with Iraq across the kingdom last week. Organizers said that demonstrations, sit-ins, fund-raising campaigns, and seminars will continue as long as the coalition forces bomb Iraq.

Analysts say the surge of pro-Iraqi activities in Jordan was triggered by Iraq's ability to hold out after two weeks of intensive air attacks. The euphoria that has swept Jordan, according to political observers and analysts, contrasted with the state of shock that prevailed in Jordan during the first days of the war.

``We felt paralyzed and shocked, we could not believe that Baghdad was being attacked,'' says Reem Khalil, an executive secretary.

But when Iraq held out, the mood changed to one of defiance.

``You have to remember that this is the first war in modern history in which Arabs have not been defeated after six days,'' says Jamal Shaer, a former Jordanian minister.

Thus, for Jordanians and Palestinians, the confrontation between the coalition forces and Iraq has emerged into the long-awaited battle with Israel and assertion of Arab independence from US influence.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has captured the Jordanian imagination with his missile attacks against Israel. Jordanians who watch Israeli television say that they feel that finally an Arab leader has been able to hit back at Israel.

``For a long time, Israel was using its military supremacy to silence Arab reaction.... It is their turn to taste the bitterness of fear and suffering they have inflicted upon us,'' says Mansour Muhammad, a Palestinian refugee.

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