Jordanians wary of U.S. as it weighs war with Iraq

Unease: Though few like Saddam Hussein, familiarity with their neighbor breeds a sense of comfort and security.

October 14, 2002|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AMMAN, Jordan -- He was about to leave the grocery store after paying for a bottle of wine when he heard the spirited conversation at the cash register. Everyone in the country, said Assam Abdel Jaber, the man ringing up the purchases, is talking about Iraq and the United States.

Joseph Koptic, holding his wine, joined in without being asked. He had lived in the United States and, for four years, Iraq, selling raw materials for pharmaceuticals. "People there are just like you and me," he began. "People in Iraq are very intelligent people and want to live. They want to buy groceries."

Iraq is not a distant, unknown land for Jordanians. Here, the United States' pledge to overthrow Saddam Hussein is heard as a threat against the comfort generated by the familiar and the known. Hussein is a figure few Jordanians praise, but they say he is someone they understand. There is a small sense of security from just that knowledge.

For Jordan, Koptic said, Iraq is a friendly country. Not necessarily a nice one, but not one hostile to Jordan. Hussein's future, he said firmly, should be determined by Iraqis, not Americans.

"The Iraqis should go along with the U.N.," Abdel Jaber said from behind the counter, where he faced floor-to-ceiling shelves of wine and liquor wedged into the corner shop, where he has worked for 12 years. "The main problem of the Middle East is Palestine. Iraq has mixed up the priorities. The Americans are using Iraq to postpone the Palestinian issue. The Iraqis are using it to increase hostility for the Americans."

Everyone here lives the turbulent politics of the Middle East. Abdel Jaber, 36, was born in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Like hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians, his family moved to Kuwait, from where Palestinians fled or were expelled when Iraq invaded in 1990.

His shop, Assad Grocery and Liquor, is one of dozens in the busy, orderly commercial neighborhood called Swifieh perched atop one of Amman's hills. Every building is faced by white limestone and shines in the sunlight. In the distance, houses on the next hilltop over look like white pebbles scattered on the ground.

A candy shop called al-Qabas is on the same block. Jawad Khaya, 35, is the owner, standing behind the counter with his two-person staff. Their conversation is colored by what they see daily on television, where the images of violence are not from Iraq but the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Israel.

Much of their conversation is about Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, then President Bush. Hussein seems far less threatening, the Americans the most confounding, they say.

"When the Americans start controlling and dictating the leader they want, where is democracy?" asked Khaya, fingering his prayer beads. "When they talk about Saddam Hussein has to go, where is democracy?"

He admires the United States, he said more than once. Its accomplishments in education, technology and science are altogether admirable, he said. Without being asked, he said he would like to live there. He also made clear he held no illusions about the character of the government of Iraq. It was simply the fate of all Arabs, he said.

"The rule of Arab leaders is the same everywhere," he said. "Saddam is no different."

And here, too, a customer could not stop himself from interrupting. Walid Rishaq, 40, wanted to express his admiration for the United States and his disdain for its foreign policy.

His subject was Israel. His voice grew louder. He had been born in Jerusalem and left with his family after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In 1995 he returned for a visit. His unpleasant experiences there -- searches of his clothes, the questioning by police -- felt like such fresh wounds, he was shouting.

Iraq did not interest him.

In the Nejem Salon barbershop, in a more prosperous neighborhood, Khaydun Talhouni reflected on his several trips to Iraq, where he unsuccessfully tried to negotiate contracts for the sale of animal feed. He had given thought to Hussein and the nature of his regime.

"Some Iraqis think he's a butcher," he said draped in a smock while a barber did his work. "But that doesn't justify what the Americans are doing.

"I think Iraq should comply with the existing U.N. resolutions. But any new resolution is just a pretext for attacking Iraq. We know he has biological and chemical weapons. So does Syria. So does Israel."

The three-chair barbershop was spotless, the floor swept clean, and the barber moved from back of the neck to sideburns to mustache as Talhouni read a newspaper and talked.

Iraq, he said, is like Syria: "It's a place where you can't express political opinions. It's a very bloody regime."

But the main source of uncertainty and unease seemed to be the United States. "With one power dictating everything in the world, to enemies as well as allies, you don't know what will happen."

You don't even know whether or when there will be a war: "Every day, I have a different view," he said. "That's the worst part of it."

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