Jordanian attack on militants reveals a national rift

For the first time since 1970, Jordan has resorted to using the armed forces to quell domestic instability.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

There were no evening prayers Wednesday as hundreds of Jordanian soldiers downed their rations at the end of another day's Ramadan fast, and clambered back into their tanks to impose a sixth night of curfew on the 70,000 inhabitants of Jordan's desert town of Maan.

Spotlights blazing, a vanguard of armored cars topped with loudspeakers and machine guns cruised the streets ordering residents back to their homes. Convoys of tanks chugged behind. Residents said the tanks had pounded the suburb of Al Tour earlier Wednesday. Security sources said six soldiers and policemen and four residents were killed in the fighting. Scores were also injured in what observers called the biggest military campaign the army had waged inside Jordan since the crushing of the 1970 Palestinian Revolt.

Jordanian analysts have been quoted as saying the crackdown on Islamic militants in Maan reveals a gaping political vacuum in the kingdom. For the first time in his reign, King Abdullah has resorted to using the armed forces, after suspending parliament and postponing elections. But except for bus and truck drivers prevented by checkpoints from driving through Maan on their way to the Saudi border, the capital seemed largely insulated from events further south.

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But in unusual display of sympathy for radical Islamists, Jordan's largest political party, the normally acquiescent Muslim Brotherhood, criticized what it called the siege of Maan by government forces. "It is unacceptable and reflects the martial mentality pursued [by the government]," it said in a statement.

Officials in Amman vowed there would be no let up in the hunt for armed Islamist groups, as Maan bore the brunt of Jordan's contribution to the war on terror. Since the killing of a USAID official in Amman on Oct. 20, Jordan has been eager to prove it can combat Al Qaeda's clones, without the intervention of US troops exercising in Jordan's desert near Iraq.

But the army's assault has made for rough conditions in the occupied town. "We've had no bread for five days," says a mechanic huddled behind his garage shutters. "It's as if we were the enemy."

Relatives in the neighboring village of Wadi Musa said they had collected food parcels, but were unable to get them through government lines. And mobile and fixed telephone lines in Maan were cut. For five days the country's main highway linking the capital to the country's only port was barricaded 25 miles to the north. Maan was sealed to the outside world.

Only when soldiers abandoned their posts to break their Ramadan fasts in the twilight could this correspondent sneak through the cordon. Inside, Maan was a ghost town under military rule. Mosques normally packed with worshipers praying the special tawarih prayers for the holy month of Ramadan were empty. The local hotel was open, accommodating troops. So too was Musa's grocery keeping the Army supplied with cigarettes. A series of checkpoints across the town prevented access to the heart of the fighting.

Tire tracks skewered the roads inside the town and shopkeepers showed broken windows and pockmarked ceilings where they say troops fired inside their homes. In a hall used for karate training, a cupboard lay upturned and sweatshirts and sneakers lay strewn on the floor. The proprietor claims troops conducting house-to-house searches had stolen his mobile phone.

Western diplomats, who channel millions in aid to the kingdom, reiterated government claims that the authorities were rounding up drug-smugglers and bandits. The group, said residents, called themselves Takfir wal Hijra. A nebulous militant group, the militants have attacked officials and Christians in Egypt and Lebanon, and denounced Arab leaders, including Jordan's King Abdullah, to be apostates. The group is said to adhere to the same Salafist ideology as Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization.

"They prowled the town in black masks, and prayed in the mosques with grenades strapped to their chest, prostrating to [assault rifles]," says Musa, the grocer, who welcomed the business brought by the military incursion. "Their leader, Abu Sayyaf, used to shop at my store."

A barber said a militant calling himself Mullah Omar still had not paid for his haircut. "May your reward be with God," said Omar, as he walked away. And a restaurant owner near the heart of the fighting on University Road says he saw militants shoot first. "About 30 militants came out of the mosque armed with [assault rifles] and fired at the soldiers."

Many Maanis accuse the government of overreacting, and warned that the use of Army could spark a backlash.

"Why did the government send in the tanks, when intelligence agents would have better able to grab the suspects?" says a former soldier, who, like many residents of Maan, has been recently pensioned off from the Army. After six days of fighting, the officials said they had made 50 arrests, including some foreigners, but that the local gang leader, Mohammed Shalabi, a onetime government preacher, remains at large.

Officials say they had repeatedly tried to call Mr. Shalabi for questioning, and that they had no alternative after local tribesmen rallied round his home in a Maan district called Tel Aviv to prevent his arrest. Jordanian security officials say their discovery of a cache of rocket-propelled grenades, chemicals, and bombmaking equipment justified their preventive attack. Shaalbi's men, they say, had already targeted Maan's governor, its police chief, as well as banks, and a girls' university dormitory in their bid to carve out a puritanical enclave.

"We will not allow a state within a state," says Jordan's information minister, Mohammed Adwan, in an echo of the last comparable use of the armed forces when Yasser Arafat's Fatah forces launched their "Black September" revolt against King Hussein 32 years ago.

As a precaution against further unrest, hospital staff reportedly received orders not to release the bodies of the dead, lest funerals turn into intifada-style protest marches. Residents said the injured had been transferred to the military hospital in the capital of Amman.

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