THE WORLD FROM...Ruweished, Jordan

On Iraq-Jordan border, US focus on illegal trade prompts Jordanians to ask why they get all the attention

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LOOKING out from this desolate border post along the empty highway that leads east through the desert to Baghdad and west to Amman, the world seems a pretty hostile place.

After all, it was the world, in the form of the United Nations, whose trade embargo of Iraq turned this road - once one of the busier trade routes in the Middle East - into an almost unused stretch of asphalt.

Aziz Absul, the Jordanian customs chief here, is used to journalists asking about how well he is doing his job. But the weariness of voice as he responds seems only partly due to his familiarity with the questions.

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His tone also implies a certain resentment, shared by many Jordanians, at all the international attention Jordan has been subjected to over US allegations that its authorities were permitting sanctions-busting on the border. That attention peaked with a visit late last June from US Central Intelligence Agency chief Robert Gates, who is understood to have applied heavy pressure on King Hussein to tighten up his frontier.

There is the new Ruweished customs post itself, Mr. Absul points out, constructed last October in the middle of nowhere, 60 miles into the desert from the town of Ruweished. The forward position is designed to reduce the strip of no-man's land along the border available to smugglers.

And in the distance runs a low ridge along the horizon, an earth wall nine feet high behind a ditch nine feet deep, that stretches the 125-mile length of Jordan's border with Iraq, also to deter smugglers.

JORDANIANS seem not to resent the king for tightening the embargo, but they are frustrated that the international fingerpointing is selective.

"My argument is that Jordan and Jordanian merchants were not the only culprits," says one leading shipping agent who used to deal extensively with goods bound for Iraq. "Stuff is going in from Syria, Turkey, and Iran, but only Jordan is under the microscope, and it's ... unfair.

"Maybe if Jordan had joined the coalition [against Iraq in the Gulf war], the Americans would have closed their eyes," he suspects.

Jordan's reluctance to join the coalition has still not been forgiven by the Gulf states, whose refusal to provide any aid to the cash-strapped kingdom for the last 18 months remains a source of bitter frustration for King Hussein. In a recent speech he lashed out strongly at Arab countries, who he said were allowing foreigners to "plunder" their resources, rather than using them to strengthen the Arab nation.

As the king continues to try to straddle the fence between Iraq and the world, the price he might pay for leaning too far to the West comes rolling through Ruweished on 18 wheels several times an hour.

The only significant traffic is all traveling from east to west - a steady stream of tankers bearing Iraqi oil to Jordan in repayment of old debts, the oil on which Jordan relies for every last drop of its needs.

That is a powerful lever in the hands of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and he can cut off this oil supply when he likes. Nor does Jordan harbor any illusions that the Gulf countries would step in quickly to ease a Jordanian oil crisis.

Squeezed from the West over sanctions, and from the east over oil, Aziz Absul is under a lot of pressure for a customs officer.

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