Jordan caught between US and Iraq

Citizenry's sympathy for Hussein runs counter to the monarchy's pro-US stance.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Most of the posters of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein plastered across Jordan during the 1991 Gulf War have long since faded and gone.

But as the United States prepares for Gulf War II, sympathy for Iraq – if not for Mr. Hussein himself – continues to run deep. These feelings are fueled by concern about an attack on a fellow Arab nation – and by Arab anger over Israeli treatment of the Palestinians.

"We are proud of Saddam Hussein, because no other Arab president used even one bullet against Israel," says Ahmad, a cobbler in a Jordanian shop, referring to Iraq's firing of Scud missiles against the Jewish state in 1991.

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Such sentiments are creating a dangerous political dilemma for Jordan's pro-US monarchy headed by King Abdullah II, who relies on American military and economic aid – and is likely to be asked to play a role in any American attack on Iraq.

"This is a very tough time for Jordan, which has never been pulled so hard by two extreme trends before," says Hani Hourani, head of the Al-Urdun Al-Jadid Research Center in Amman.

Referring to the current Jordanian monarch's father, Mr. Hourani adds, "In 1990, King Hussein had enough influence, legitimacy, and credibility to protect Jordan from American pressure. Now it is not so easy."

The late King Hussein refused to join the US-led anti-Iraq coalition during the first Gulf War in 1991.

But his son, seeking to modernize Jordan and draw Western investment, is far more dependent on US aid and goodwill.

Analysts say that King Abdullah is moving to ensure that his security services will be able to control dissent if the US takes on an Iraqi regime that many here feel has been already battered by defeat in the Gulf War, and by 12 years of United Nations sanctions.

Though officially the government rules out the use of Jordanian soil for military strikes, the royal palace supports "the American attacks on Iraq, and ... will give both logistical and tactical support for their strikes," says a veteran Jordanian journalist who has close ties to the regime.

Jordan's security organs "flexed their muscles" to limit public displays of surging popular unrest last spring, when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the reoccupation of Palestinian cities in the West Bank.

That decision grated against Palestinians here, who make up some 60 percent of the population – but sent a message that trouble would not be tolerated. Parliamentary elections have been put off for a third time, to next year; demonstrations are banned.

King Abdullah "has proved to be three times more ruthless than his father," says the journalist, who asked not to be further identified. "People will yell and shout in their homes and on TV, but won't burn cars in the streets, because the security services are so strong. The king is handling this issue properly, by using this powerful deterrent in a pre-emptive way."

Jordan's dilemma has prompted a new definition of its policy, codified by the slogan "Jordan comes first."

Jordan's decision not to side with the US in the first Gulf War – even as Arab nations like Syria and Egypt sent troops to help expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait – drew American displeasure that translated into econonic slowdown.

Jordan came out of the cold – as far as Washington was concerned – when it signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. Since then, it has been designated a "non-NATO US ally," hosted joint military exercises with US forces, and received an increasing number of aid packages.

The US waived $700 million in debt and boosted annual support in 1997 to $150 million in economic and $75 million in military aid. Congress added a further $300 million in assistance in 1999-2000, and has raised it a further $300 million for 2003.

"Jordan has learned the hard way from the previous war, and this time, his majesty believes Jordan should not be exposed to another bitter experience," says Jawad Anani, a former chief of King Hussein's court, and former foreign minister. Mr. Anani remembers a call 3 a.m. in late 1997 from a prominent US State Department official, who read him a message that the US "did not view happily" an [inaccurate] report that the King would offer a US-Iraq reconciliation plan.

"I'm sure his majesty finds it easy to deal with the Americans," Anani says. "His plans to modernize Jordan and create substantial growth hinge not only on US aid, but on their technology and investment. It's a real dependence that will curtail degrees of freedom."

Iraq has made clear that it will challenge any Arab nation that backs US plans, and with some 400,000 Iraqis now living in Jordan – making up nearly one tenth of the population – the royal court knows that Baghdad can move to undermine the monarchy.

In 1998, riots in the cities of Karak and Maan, considered to be part of the backbone of the Hashemite monarchy's support, were fueled in part by pro-Iraqi elements – and came as the US was gearing up to bomb Iraq. Wielding pick-axs, protesters flailed against the bullet-proof glass windows of armored police vehicles.

Jordanian sources say the Iraqi embassy in Amman has been offering cash to pro-Iraq groups and professional organizations, to help win their support.

"The timing on when you turn your back on Iraq is very important," says a long-time Jordan analyst, who asked not to be named. "Jordan must choose between the US and Iraq, but it must balance that in a way that will not anger Saddam too early. If Saddam survives, Jordan will pay the price."

Making tough choices, though, is what Washington's "with-us-or-against-us" policy is forcing Jordan to do.

"Jordanians understand that Jordan's interests go beyond a brotherly affection for Iraq," says a Western diplomat. At the same time, Jordanians "deeply disapprove" of Israel's policies against the Palestinians – which they pin to Israel's staunch supporter, the US, he says.

Still, there has been a change in tone, the diplomat says. Worn down by bad news to the point of "anxiety fatigue," people here cherish stability above all else, he says.

Among the scenarios Jordan fears is a large influx of Iraqi refugees. Another unwelcome prospect is a concerted push by Israel – using the Iraq attack as a cover for action, many here suggest – to force hundreds of thousands of Palestinians across the Jordan River and into Jordan.

"Jordanians feed on the uncertainties," says the diplomat. "They would like to be reassured on every front, and they find reassurance very difficult to come by."

Part of the problem is that, for many here, Israel and Iraq are linked. "In Jordan and the Arab world, the US is seen as a bigger enemy than Israel," says Ramzi Khoury, a political analyst and head of a media services group in Amman and Ramallah, in the West Bank.

"If you discuss Saddam Hussein, Jordanians have no respect for his style of dictatorship. But that is not the issue – it is sympathy when Arabs are attacked." The result, says Mr. Khoury, is that the US "is facing unmatched Arab hostility. But they [the Americans] believe that they have paid off client regimes enough to keep control."

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