Jordan preps for Hussein backlash

Amman will receive Patriot antimissile systems from the US within weeks.

Jordan seems to have concluded that Saddam Hussein poses a greater threat to its security than radical Islamists within Jordan.

Officials yesterday confirmed that the US will supply Jordan with Patriot antimissile batteries as protection against a possible Scud missile attack by Mr. Hussein. Hussein launched more than 80 Scuds at Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Qatar in the 1991 Gulf War - nearly 40 flew directly over Jordan.

"We expect that two to three Patriots will arrive in the next weeks," says Jordan's minister of information, Mohammed Adwan. "I assume they are up-to-date Patriots."

But while Jordan becomes the fifth nation in the region with Patriots, the agreement between Amman and Washington could stir even greater anti-US sentiment in Jordan from clerics who have already declared jihad against US interests in the kingdom.

The ire of radicals could be inflamed because the arrival of the Patriots might pave the way for US troops to use Jordan as a "third front" in a war against Iraq. Amman has repeatedly said that it would not allow US troops to mount an offensive from its soil. But Western diplomats say that Jordan will permit the US to conduct search-and-rescue missions from its territory, and US officials doubt that time will allow for the training of Jordanian troops to operate the Patriots without a US military presence.

"Jordan has made a request for the delivery of a system and the request will be met," a US government official said this week. He added that the system would be accompanied by a unit of US troops. "You don't stick these [missiles] in the ground and walk away."

The Patriot agreement was welcomed by Jordanian officials, fearful that they could be caught in the crossfire of an Iraqi or Israeli strike. "We have witnessed in 1991 Scud missiles going over Jordan, and we will have other means of defusing the opportunity to use such missiles [this time]," Prime Minister Ali Abu Raghreb told reporters.

But King Abdullah's military alliance with the US has riled his own opposition, many of whom have cast support for Iraq. Last year, Jordan received some $460 million in US aid, including $200 million in military assistance. On Sunday, the US Embassy in Amman announced that it had sent $145 million five months ahead of schedule. Clerics from the main Islamist party, the Islamic Action Front, say they will take unspecified action against US interests if the US begins bombing Iraq.

US officials declined to comment on how the Patriot deal would be financed. King Abdullah publicly offered to buy the missiles during talks last week with the visiting commander in chief of the US Central Command, Gen. Tommy Franks. But defense experts suggest they may have to be leased to overcome objections from Congress. In April, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency said that the Pentagon had proposed the sale of a $22-million radar system to Jordan to defend against an Iraqi attack, but the sale was never approved by Congress.

Jordan is the latest country in the region to want Patriot protection. Earlier this week, officials in the tiny Gulf island of Bahrain, where the US Fifth Fleet is headquartered, reported that Washington had begun deploying Patriot batteries. In recent months, Kuwait has taken further delivery of four Patriots, and Germany has agreed to supply Israel from two batteries of its decommissioned arsenal. Patriot missile systems have been in place in Saudi Arabia since the 1991 Gulf War.

As the US tries to meet Arab demand for its arms, the Pentagon is reported to have ordered producers Lockheed Martin and Raytheon to step up production. Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, head of the Defense Department's missile-defense agency, was quoted as saying that as of the end of last year, only two of the latest Patriot PAC-III interceptors were being completed per month.

US officials have declined to comment where the batteries will come from. Outside the US, only Germany and the Netherlands possess Patriots. But on Sunday, the US Embassy in Tel Aviv was quoted by Reuters as saying that three Patriot missile batteries and accompanying personnel were due to be withdrawn from Israel by Feb. 10. Observers say that Israel, which has its own Arrow antimissile system, could be anxious to relocate the system away from population centers, given the Patriot's patchy record for accuracy.

"A number of Patriot missiles missed their targets in 1991 and caused significant damage in Israeli urban areas," says Mouin Rabbani, a Middle East analyst in Jordan. "It would therefore technically make sense to locate them in the relatively unpopulated deserts of eastern Jordan."

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