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Iraq Special Report

  U.S. Threats Against Iraq Stir Wide Opposition in Jordan

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 19, 1998; Page A23

AMMAN, Jordan, Feb. 18—Few of Iraq's neighbors are as nervous as Jordan is about the threat of airstrikes on Baghdad.

A staunch U.S. ally, Jordan is a case study for the possible regional repercussions of the crisis in Iraq. Economic problems, political tensions and frustrations with the prospects for Middle East peace come together in the feelings over Iraq.

The economy here is likely to suffer, because Jordan depends on Iraq for fuel and half its foreign trade. The country is preparing to head off a stream of refugees from Iraq, and a restive population unhappy with its ruling monarch, King Hussein, likely will take to the streets in solidarity with the Iraqi public, if not Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

In view of such forebodings, it is of little surprise that Jordanians of all political persuasions oppose the bombing. "Jordan can only lose. No one can see anything positive about it," said George Hawatmeh, editor of the Jordan Times newspaper.

"Of course we are worried," added Taher Masri, a former prime minister. "There is almost no way we cannot be splashed by this crisis."

To preempt disturbances, authorities have banned public demonstrations and beefed up security at government buildings and Western businesses for fear of sabotage or rioting. Troops have been sent to the Iraqi border to stave off a refugee flow.

Last Friday, a pro-Iraq demonstration at a mosque gave a hint of the domestic dangers to Jordan. Police used clubs and dogs to break up the march. Despite the ban, opposition leaders say they will hold more. "It is our right," said Leith Shubeileh, a prominent dissident and union leader.

But even if a lid is kept on violence, many Jordanians seem to believe that this crisis in Iraq will have long-term effects, and perhaps severely weaken the monarchy. "It may take a while, but despair will take a toll and the rulers will be the target," said a former top Jordanian official.

Jordan favors a diplomatic resolution of the Iraq crisis -- a seemingly innocuous stand. "There is widespread sympathy with the Iraqi people as the military option seems around the corner," Crown Prince Hassan, the king's brother, told reporters recently. "Nobody can guarantee there will be no civilian casualties, and clearly that is what is worrying people."

Critics want more -- at least a clear statement of opposition to U.N. sanctions placed on Iraq during the Kuwait crisis and maintained ever since.

Jordan's relations with Iraq are a complex blend of practicality and romance. In an authorized exemption from U.N. sanctions, Jordan exchanges about $250 million worth of food and basic consumer goods for Iraqi oil. The oil is sold at below-market prices, Jordanians say, and because it is a barter deal, Jordan need not spend precious foreign exchange. The exports amount to half of all Jordan's foreign trade in manufactured goods.

In emotional terms, the Jordanians long have sympathized with Iraq, even if they dislike Saddam Hussein. Jordan contains several national and ethnic groups, including Palestinians, Circassians, Egyptians and even Iraqis. They coalesce around the idea of pan-Arab solidarity.

Seven years ago, many Jordanians celebrated Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. They were attracted by Saddam Hussein's pledges to redistribute Arab wealth and liberate Palestinians from Israeli rule. Hussein at first supported the invasion, only to back off later and appeal for a negotiated settlement.

After the war, in a kind of general repentance, Jordanians largely viewed the invasion as a negative: One Arab state ought not occupy another.

"The big difference with seven years ago is now the people see no excuse for bombing. There is no Kuwait issue," said Abdel Majeed Thneibat, head of the Muslim Brotherhood, a major segment of the Islamic opposition in Jordan.

Accounts of bloody repression in Iraq have taken the glow from Saddam Hussein but have not erased Jordanians' sympathy for Iraqi civilians. "The economic deprivation is something that Jordanians feel deeply," Masri said.

Jordanians find it difficult to identify with Washington's Iraq policy because of deep dissatisfaction with the trajectory of Middle East peace talks with Israel. They say repeatedly that the Clinton administration applies a double standard in its dealings -- an aggressive effort to enforce U.N resolutions in Iraq but passivity in the face of Israel's policy of holding onto the West Bank. More than half the population of Jordan is Palestinian.

King Hussein signed a peace treaty with Israel as part of a framework that was meant to include the Palestinians, Syria, Lebanon and eventually the entire Middle East. Talks with the Palestinians are frozen, negotiations with Syria are long dormant and other Arab states have pulled back from steps to improve relations with Israel. In effect, Hussein signed a separate, now unpopular, peace.

The monarch sold peace with Israel partly on the grounds that it would bring prosperity. It has not. Unemployment is high -- 19 percent of the labor force -- and the gap between rich and poor is growing, government officials say. Following a riot in 1996 over increases in the price of bread, a U.S. government report said the "much anticipated economic boom resulting from Jordan's 1994 peace accord with Israel has yet to materialize." The report, made last year to Congress by the U.S. Agency for International Development, warned, "Public support for peace with Israel, and more broadly for the peace process, is eroding."

Because the king is deeply identified with the peace effort, he is bearing the brunt of criticism -- unusual in a country where the monarch has tried to stay above the fray and complaints traditionally were directed at cabinet ministers. "He has taken this policy on his shoulders, it is fully his and people are targeting him for it," said a Jordanian official.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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