US Lifts Red Sea Blockade In Peace Gesture to Jordan

BY agreeing to lift the marine blockade on the Jordanian port of Aqaba, instituted as part of the United Nations trade embargo against Iraq, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher removed an important hurdle obstructing progress in the Middle East peace process.

After meeting with King Hussein of Jordan in Britain on April 25, Mr. Christopher said that goods delivered to Jordan by ship would be inspected in warehouses at the Red Sea port of Aqaba rather than at sea.

A United States official told reporters that Lloyd's Register of Ships would handle the professional inspections. Jordan will pay for the new system, which will cost between $2 to $3 million a year.

But although King Hussein, who suspended Jordan's participation in the peace talks on March 28 in protest of the blockade, has agreed to go back to the negotiating table, analysts and officials here indicate more gaps must be bridged before Jordan accepts peace with Israel.

At a press conference on April 25, Prime Minister Abdul Salam al-Majali said that Jordan will sign a peace treaty with Israel only when all issues on the Jordanian-Israeli talks are resolved.

The agenda for peace talks between Jordan and Israel, signed on Sept. 14, a day after the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian agreement in Washington, includes water rights, borders, and a narrow strip of land on the Israeli-Jordanian border that Israel has occupied since 1968.

But on April 18, King Hussein said that a treaty with Israel will also depend on the final status of East Jerusalem, which was unilaterally annexed by Israel in 1967. The king has said that for him an acceptable solution would be to allow the three religious groups - Islam, Judaism, and Christianity - to run the affairs of East Jerusalem.

For the Jordanians, the US's agreement to remove the sea-based interception force eased two political and economic problems. The first deals with what Jordanians saw as an infringement on their sovereignty, and the second with the financial losses incurred by Jordan as a result of delays caused by a US-led Naval force that stops ships on their way to Jordan to check for goods destined for Iraq. Jordanian losses are estimated at more than $1.4 billion since sanctions were applied against Iraq in August 1990.

In the last month, Jordan has sought the support of France and Britain for this new proposal accepted by the US. A British diplomat in Amman has publicly described the sea-based inspection operations as ``excessive.''

Moreover, Jordanian officials and shipping executives believe the US was using the interceptions to apply political pressure on Jordan, because in many cases, it was the American Naval forces that were responsible for blocking the entry of most delayed ships to the port of Aqaba.

Jordanian officials say that the US has never officially tied the sea inspections to conditions regarding the peace process, but say the intensity of the American inspection operations, which included blocking Jordanian-bound goods and even UN-cleared shipments for Iraq, placed Jordan under political pressure.

According to sources close to the government, an escalation of American Navy inspections occurred almost immediately after the king turned down an American proposal to sign a peace treaty with Israel during a visit to Washington last January.

Jordanian shipping sources say that at least 14 ships were diverted since January, mostly by US Naval ships, forcing them to unload at Egyptian and Saudi ports.

Shipping sources say that the new land-based methods will still cause problems, at least in terms of congestions at the small port.

But for the Jordanian government, the new inspections will lessen the possibility of any country's ability to use sanctions on Iraq to exert political pressure on Jordan.

According to Mr. Majali, the new land-based authority will not perform ``inspections,'' but will observe the shipments while they are examined by the Jordanian customs duty department.

In his London statements, Christopher described the new system as one ``to verify compliance'' in an apparent indication that the US was aware of Jordan's sensitivity to ``inspection.''

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