AMMAN, Jordan - Jordan's foreign minister talked about geography yesterday, to explain his country's fearful view of a possible conflict between the United States and Iraq.
One drawn-out conflict is already being fought just west of Jordan, between Palestinians in the West Bank and Israelis, said Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher. Iraq lies to the kingdom's east. Jordan, a country without oil and lacking enough water, is forever in-between.
That is why the government remains determined to play the smallest possible role in any conflict involving Iraq. The kingdom is no less anxious to avoid jeopardizing relations with the United States, the country Jordan sees as its most important ally.
What Jordan wants most is for tensions between the United States and Iraq to be resolved peacefully, and for Jordan not to have to support either Iraqi President Saddam Hussein or an attack, even if done under the auspices of the United Nations, against another Arab state.
"Whatever position we are taking is not in support or opposition to any political regime," Muasher said during an interview with reporters. "We are taking Jordan's interests first."
"Our ability to handle two wars, for a country like Jordan, is extremely limited."
Jordanian officials have refrained from direct criticism of Iraq but have urged it to accept the return of United Nations weapons inspectors. Jordan's King Abdullah II and his Cabinet ministers have expressed concern that military action against Iraq could produce a two-front refugee crisis involving Iraqis trying to enter Jordan from the east and Palestinians seeking to leave the West Bank if violence there spreads.
About 1.5 million people fled Persian Gulf states for Jordan after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Jordan's then King Hussein did not join the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq but could not protect his country's economy against the loss of Iraq as its biggest trading partner. Iraq remains Jordan's main source of oil.
"We are very worried about refugees from our west," said Muasher, referring to Palestinians living in the West Bank. "We are talking to all sides to ensure we are not faced with a problem on the western border."
The Israeli government has assured Jordan privately that it would not expel, or "transfer," Palestinians from the West Bank in case of a larger Middle East war, he said, but Jordan remains worried by the lack of a clear public declaration of that policy.
Muasher said President Bush's speech Monday about the threat posed by Iraq left open the possibility of a diplomatic solution, one that would have to be based on the return of U.N. inspectors.
"We do not want this to be a U.S.-Iraq issue," he said. "We want all this to be done at the United Nations.
"The idea of one state deciding who is the good guy and who is the bad guy is very problematic. This is why we have the U.N. and why we have international law."
But if an inspection system fails and an attack follows, "it is the responsibility of Iraq," he said.
"What we have done is to send a clear message to Iraq, that the solution for them is to fully and unconditionally accept the return of inspectors." he said. "We were encouraged by the Iraqi response to that."
Jordanian officials say the country will not provide bases for military strikes against Iraq, and Muasher said the Bush administration had not sought permission to do so.
"The U.S. is well aware of our vulnerability and is not asking us to do anything beyond our capabilities," he said.