Stuck between Israel, Iraq, Jordan fears flyover war

January 04, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

AMMAN, Jordan -- Having already suffered serious damage to its economy because of the Persian Gulf crisis, Jordan finds itself in increasing danger of becoming a major battlefield if war erupts between Iraq and U.S.-led forces.

If fighting begins, Iraq has threatened to launch missiles against Israel, and Israel has promised to retaliate. Either country, if it used the most direct route, would have to cross Jordanian territory or airspace.

As the buffer state between Iraq and Israel, Jordan would have to choose between allowing its neighbors to violate its territory without being punished or taking military action that could draw the kingdom more deeply into the conflict.

Jordan's King Hussein, according to Jordanian and foreign analysts, would face the grim certainty of risking the stability of his regime, regardless of what he did.

If he did not resist an Iraqi action against Israel, he would be inviting Israeli retaliation. If he resisted Iraq, he could anger the Jordanian public, which has been generally supportive of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The king's choices against Israel are no better. Analysts and diplomats say Jordan would find it difficult to prevent Israeli warplanes from overflying Jordan in a raid against Iraq. But if he failed to resist Israel, the king again could risk angering Jordanians, 60 percent of whom are Palestinian.

Jordan would find it almost impossible to remain aloof once one violation of its territory occurred, analysts say. A violation by one neighbor would almost certainly lead to a second in the form of a retaliatory strike by the other.

Jordan is thus one of the countries most worried by the prospect of war. "Jordan wants to take the lowest possible profile because it is caught between Iraq and Israel," said Hussein O. Toga, a retired military officer and head of Jordan's Center of Strategic Studies. "Jordan is stressing the importance of its independence."

Mr. Toga added, "Jordan is not going to allow anybody to enter its borders, from this side or that side. We do not want to make Jordan into a killing field."

Israel in recent days has offered public reassurances that it has no hostile intentions toward Jordan, but Israeli officials express concern about what they say is the king's political vulnerability. "Whatever happens militarily, it's got to have an effect on the king," a military source said. "That's one of the problems. We see fighting making him weaker."

King Hussein maintains that Jordan is neutral in the Persian Gulf crisis, a stance that has angered the United States. While Jordan officially observes the United Nations trade embargo and says it wants Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, it has never publicly condemned Iraq's invasion.

The king meanwhile continues to find a role for himself as mediator, traveling Wednesday to London in hope of persuading the European Community to hold talks with Iraq before the United Nations' Jan. 15 deadline for a withdrawal from Kuwait. King Hussein, along with many Europeans, hopes that such talks will lead to negotiations between Iraq and the United States.

Jordan's military prospects are a powerful incentive for the king's efforts. While generally regarded as well-trained and well-equipped, the country's 90,000-member army is outnumbered by the forces of Israel and Iraq and is given little chance of being able to seal Jordan's borders against a determined invader.

Jordan has little or no chance of stopping its neighbors from sending missiles through its airspace and also has the unpleasant choice of either allowing foreign warplanes to fly past unchallenged or risking having them attack Jordan's air defense system if it is used against them.

"We are surrounded by countries that have missiles," Mr. Toga said. "We do not have any kind of mass-destruction systems. All we have is a belief in negotiations."

Jordan and Israel are already increasing their military readiness along their common border, with each side declaring that its actions are not intended to be aggressive but looking carefully to determine whether the deployments of the other could be the prelude to an attack.

Jordan, according to foreign analysts, has conducted large-scale military exercises and has moved extra troops to hilltop posts overlooking routes that would have to be used by Israeli ground forces carrying out an invasion. Israel meanwhile has increased the number of its troops stationed near the Jordan River.

"As the date comes closer, people get a little more uptight," an Israeli military officer said. "Everybody's taking out their files for emergencies."

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