AMMAN, JORDAN — AFTER spending a month abroad for health treatment, King Hussein returned to his kingdom last week to a warm popular reception - and much international speculation concerning a possible shift in his policy toward the Iraqi regime.
During a three-week recuperative stay in London, the king met with a number of Iraqi opposition leaders, including Jalal Talabani, leader of the Iraqi Kurds; Abul Majid al-Khoei, the son of the late Shiite leader Ayatollah Abul-qassem al-Khoei; and Ahmad Chalabi, an opposition Iraqi National Congress member.
These meetings, along with public statements in the United States implicitly criticizing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for hanging onto power at the expense of his people's suffering, indicated to Western diplomats that the monarch is distancing himself from the Iraqi regime - something the palace and government officials deny.
According to an informed source with personal connections to the royal Hashemite family, King Hussein's meeting with Mr. Khoei in London was social; the relationship between the Hash-emites and Khoeis goes back many decades when the same family ruled Iraq. "It was a social call to the Khoei Institute by the king to extend his condolences for the death of Abulqassem al-Khoei," says the source.
The same source, as well as a government official, says Mr. Chalabi appeared at the institute coincidentally and that his meeting with the king was unplanned.
The official explanation for King Hussein's meeting with Mr. Talabani is that "Jordan meets with all the players in the area." But officials insist that Jordan does not intend to interfere with Iraq's "internal affairs" and will not side with the opposition against the Iraqi regime.
While Jordan is trying to improve its relations with Arab Gulf countries, officials say the kingdom will not do so at the expense of relations with Iraq. "Moving in the direction of improving relations with the US and its Arab allies does not in any way mean we are distancing ourselves from Iraq," said a government official in an interview.
Iraq was Jordan's main trading partner before the United Nations sanctions were imposed on the country after its invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.
After Jordan opposed foreign military intervention in the crisis, the king's relations with members of the anti-Iraq coalition - notably the US and the Gulf states - went sour. Popular Jordanian support for Iraq and Saddam at the time also upset the coalition members, especially Saudi Arabia, which cut off its oil supplies to the financially troubled Jordanian kingdom. Iraq now provides Jordan with its only source of oil.
King Hussein's brand of pragmatic diplomacy - which enables him to maintain a cautious balance between keeping his people at home happy and keeping the West content - is seen by Arab and Western diplomats and local analysts as the lifeline for his and Jordan's survival.
The popular support for Iraq and Saddam seems to be in the back of King Hussein's mind when he discusses Iraq. Ever since the war started in January 1991, the monarch has refrained from mentioning Saddam's name, but always expressed his "concern for the Iraqi people and their suffering" as a result of the war and the UN sanctions.
Analysts say the king wants to hold onto the support which he gained from his position during the Gulf crisis. But Western diplomats say they hope the king's current standing - as evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of people who lined the streets of Amman to greet him last week - will allow the king to take a firmer stand against the Iraqi regime.
Official sources, however, say the king will not apologize for his position in the Gulf war. "We would like to win back the Gulf countries, but not at the expense of our dignity," says one official.
Jordan has won some plaudits for its increased enforcement of UN sanctions against Iraq since July. Such steps may lead to improved relations with Gulf states.
A recent visit by the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan to King Hussein's hospital bed in the US is seen as an indication of improving relations between the two kingdoms. Analysts here say that Washington wants Jordan to stop depending on Iraqi oil in favor of resumed supplies from Saudi Arabia, but Jordanian officials say they are not seeking other sources of oil.