Iraq-U.S. strife adds to Jordan's difficulties

U.S. talk of war increases internal, external tension

August 25, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AL KHARANAH, Jordan - At first glance, the squat brown buildings and interlocking carports at this sprawling border crossing with Iraq appear abandoned, as empty as the vast, stony desert of eastern Jordan and western Iraq.

Idling tanker trucks carrying oil pumped from Iraqi oil fields fill the air with exhaust fumes, but only a few workers brave the suffocatingly hot air by venturing outside.

The Iraqi drivers patiently wait for Jordanian police to conduct cursory inspections and stamp their passports. Then the drivers embark on the final, 200-mile leg of their journey, dodging vehicles of all shapes and sizes along a narrow two-lane highway to Amman, Jordan's capital.

This border post is where nearly 5 million barrels of Iraqi oil enter the kingdom each year, half of which Jordan gets for free and the other half at heavily discounted prices. Without it, the kingdom's shaky economy could collapse, and that is one reason that Jordanians are increasingly nervous over hearing American officials talk about a possible war against Iraq.

A Jordanian security officer at the border insisted that tension was too high for him to let people at the border crossing talk. Leaning across his desk, he withdrew his smile and asked in a low, serious tone, "Do the Americans know how dangerous a war would be?"

A new American-led war against Iraq is just one of Jordan's concerns.

Iraq lies to the east, and the disputed West Bank lies to the west, where Palestinian militants and the Israeli army are battling over land, security and the nature of a possible Palestinian state. Nearly 60 percent of Jordan's 5.1 million people are Palestinian, many of them with relatives in the West Bank.

Jordan finds itself sandwiched between two conflicts and facing considerable risks. It risks alienating its Palestinian citizens if it sides with the United States in its campaign against Iraq but risks alienating the United States if it sides with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"We are in a precarious position," said Mohamad Adwan, Jordan's minister of information, sipping coffee in his office in Amman. "The U.S. appreciates the balancing act that we are trying to play. We are walking a tightrope."

Jordan's King Abdullah II, he said, intends to "protect the interests of Jordan. We should not become a victim to something we had nothing to do with."

Jordanians say Abdullah is no longer trying to choose the right side in his nation's policies toward Iraq and the United States but is trying to avoid picking the wrong one.

"Nobody knows whether the Americans have a day-after plan," said Mustafa B. Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. "Nobody knows what a post-Saddam Iraq will look like."

American officials insist that they appreciate Jordan's predicament but expressed irritation that Abdullah, on a visit to Washington last month, called the idea of war "ludicrous" and a "tremendous mistake." The king left Washington, Western diplomats said in Amman, with the knowledge that he could do little to influence events.

Jordanian officials have repeatedly warned about the danger of a war against Iraq before resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the White House this month, Abdullah said a war against Iraq would be "too many things for the Middle East at one go."

Abdullah's uncle, Prince Hassan, met last month with Iraqi opposition figures in London, a meeting Jordanian officials criticized as a mistake and said had not been endorsed by Abdullah.

Palestinian majority

The government also has delicate relations with the country's Palestinian majority. Jordan governed the West Bank and East Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967, when Israel won control in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Palestinian refugees flooded Jordan, and Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization emerged as a threat to King Hussein, Abdullah's father. In a brief, murderous civil war in 1970 known as Black September, Jordanian troops loyal to the king expelled Arafat and the PLO.

In 1994, King Hussein signed a peace treaty with Israel. But relations have cooled since the start of the latest Palestinian uprising in October 2000.

Some Palestinians in Jordan have held anti-American demonstrations at which protesters have waved Iraqi flags. In April, the government banned public demonstrations.

Hamarneh, the analyst from the University of Jordan, said anti-American sentiment is high, fueled by U.S. support for Israel and President Bush's vow to topple Iraq's president.

"There used to be a distinction between the American government and the American people," Hamarneh said. "Now, it is all the same."

Adwan, the information minister, said, "As long as the Palestinian conflict is not resolved, you are going to have instability, despair and irrational emotions everywhere."

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