TRADITIONALLY, Jordan has been caught in the diplomatic cross-fire between its Middle East neighbors, Israel and Iraq. If the Gulf region erupts into war, the cross-fire could become more lethal. ``If Saddam Hussein is serious about involving Israel and if Israel is not serious about staying out of the conflict, Jordan is in a very difficult situation,'' says Leila Sharaf, a former Jordanian Cabinet minister.
Jordanian officials insist that if war breaks out Jordan will not allow itself to be used to widen the conflict beyond the Gulf.
``We have declared that our airspace and land will not be used by any other party,'' says Prime Minister Mudar Badran.
But given Jordan's strategic location, just minutes by air from Israeli and Iraqi missile sites, maintaining neutrality might prove impossible.
Jordanian officials say that in case of war the most likely threat would come from Israel. They repeatedly voice fears that Israel will use a Gulf war as a pretext to seize territory east of the Jordan River into which it would expel Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Under this scenario, considered highly unlikely by most Western observers, Israel would later bargain away conquered Jordanian territory in return for international recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank.
In anticipation of this threat, 80,000 Jordanian troops are mobilized along Jordan's western front, facing Israel, ``to reinforce our defensive capabilities,'' according to Mr. Badran. Tens of thousands of civilians, meanwhile, have undergone rudimentary military training as part of a ``popular army'' formed after Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.
Most observers agree that Jordan would be no match for Israel's larger, highly sophisticated armed forces. But Badran says that both Iraq and Syria had agreed to come to Jordan's defense if it were attacked by Israel.
``If Israel is in the war, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria inevitably become one front,'' says a former senior Jordanian official who has spoken to the leaders of the other two countries. ``What you [the United States] have in your blueprint is not going to be the reality.''
``Should Israel attack Jordan, such an attack would become become priority No. 1, and the Gulf would be priority No. 2 in the Arab region,'' Badran said in a Monitor interview.
He said Iraq had agreed not to cross the Jordanian border unless requested to do so by Jordan.
``Iraq will not enter Jordan without an official request and only to defend Jordan,'' the prime minister says. The point is considered largely academic, since Iraqi troops are deployed far from the Jordanian border.
Jordan's pledge not to be used to widen the Gulf war will be harder to enforce if either Israel or Iraq chooses to violate Jordanian airspace in order to attack each other with missiles.
Iraq might be tempted to make such a move, officials here acknowledge, since if Israel were drawn into the war, even defensively, Arab states might bolt the US-led coalition.
``If war starts, Israel would be a [Iraqi] target, not to hurt Israel militarily but to have an effect on the coalition and to raise the Islamic temper,'' says the former senior Jordanian official.
Asked at a press conference in Geneva on Wednesday whether Iraq would attack Israel in the event of a US attack on Iraq, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz replied: ``Yes, absolutely yes.''
The former senior Jordanian official says,``We can't do anything about Iraqi missiles, just the same as we couldn't do anything about Israeli missiles aimed at Iraq. I don't think I'll be aware of a missile over Jordanian territory. I would not be able to prevent it.''
Bombers overflying Jordanian territory would pose an even trickier problem. While officials say the Air Force would send its planes up to deter Israeli intruders - even if they were responding to an Iraqi attack - they are ambiguous about their response to any unannounced Iraqi overflight.
Given the domestic criticism that would follow the downing of an Iraqi plane, says a Western diplomat, Jordan might finesse the issue by scrambling its planes too late to engage in aerial combat.
On the other hand, says the former official, an Iraqi air attack using Jordanian airspace would invite Israeli retribution against Jordan. ``They [Iraq] would be sacrificing something they should not sacrifice, and they [Iraq] know we [Jordan] would not accept that,'' he says.
A Western diplomat concurs. Although King Hussein is unlikely to engage Iraqi planes, he says, he would find it politically possible to do so. ``He has successfully made the point that at the end of the day, [they] have to protect [themselves],'' he explains.
In an attempt to forestall fallout from the Gulf crisis in another field, Jordan closed its land border with Iraq on Wednesday to prevent a renewed flow of refugees. After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Jordan spent $55 million to house and feed 850,000 foreign nationals who had fled. But the government has received only $12 million in foreign aid to pay for the care. Officials here has predicted that as many as 2 million more refugees might seek safety in Jordan should hostilities break out.