RUWEISHED, JORDAN, AUG. 10 -- At this remote outpost in the eastern Jordanian desert, Iraqis hurried to return home to enlist in what they viewed as a fight for Arab honor, Bedouins exchanged rumors about a Kuwaiti prince who was said to have escaped from his country in disguise, and American Embassy employees waited for their counterparts from Iraq, who never came.

Nearly 200 miles from Amman, the Jordanian capital, and only about 40 miles from the Iraqi border, Ruweished -- a drab, dusty and largely forgotten cluster of unfinished and windowless huts on the way to a major Jordanian checkpoint -- has become a hub of international attention.

It is seen as a key point on a possible overland passageway for thousands of Americans and other Westerners seeking to leave Iraq and Kuwait where they were trapped after the Iraqi invasion of the oil sheikdom. Refugee traffic at Ruweished has become a barometer of the widening conflict.

The Shatt al Arab Resthouse at this desolate frontier post is widely regarded as a blessing. Bedouin truckers in white headdresses sipped syrupy Arab coffee and traded tidbits about alleged treachery in hushed tones. "A Kuwaiti emir of the royal family was smuggled across the border disguised in Western clothing," one said to another.

On the other side of the road, two vans with diplomatic license plates stood empty, as did an air-conditioned bus parked near the passport control building. Their expected passengers had not arrived. A half-dozen American employees from the U.S. Embassy in Amman waited nervously nearby for a second day in the dry August heat.

Ten U.S. diplomatic staff members who were due to cross into Jordan from Baghdad Thursday afternoon never showed up. "They could come across any time," a U.S. Embassy official said. "There was a possibility they would come yesterday and today."

Although a half-dozen American businessmen had trickled through to Jordan two days ago, the Iraqi border has appeared impervious to Americans since then.

Egyptian businessman Yehyia Metwalli told journalists that Iraqis seemed reluctant to let foreign specialists with residence permits out of the country for fear of losing technical experts and skilled laborers. Experienced technicians are desperately needed, he said, to keep Iraq's infrastructure functioning as a U.N.-sanctioned blockade tightens around the country.

Barely six yards from the American Embassy group, an Iraqi family waited in a van as their papers were processed for reentry to their country. Razzaq Jassem, a merchant, was on his way home along with his brother, their wives and children -- a week ahead of schedule after a trip, both for business and pleasure, to Bombay.

"As soon as we heard about the events and the dispute and about the world closing in on Iraq from all sides, we wanted to return right away," Jassem said, gesticulating with his hands, his eyes fixed toward the Iraqi border.

"At this moment, Iraq is one big army and this is fantastic," he added. "My brother and I are going to volunteer. My son, a university student, will enroll in the army as soon as we get back." Declaring that "the Arab street is all for {Iraqi President} Saddam {Hussein}," Jassem described Iraqis as everybody's "friends -- except those who give us problems."

"What business does the United States have to interfere, to meddle?" he asked. "Why does it not solve the problem of blacks in America first?"

Jassem's 25-year-old son, Mazen, interjected, "There is one thing differentiating men from animals. Men must have their dignity and honor, and they do have feelings."

Jassem's brother, Mohammed, joined in, saying, "In effect, Iraqi men know no fear. Once their spirits are out, they cannot be subdued."

This vast stretch of arid desert is crusty and stark. The only patch of greenery is around the Qasral Azraq, an old, graying stone fortress built by the Romans. A few palm trees cast a pale shadow on the Qasral, said to have been reconstructed by the Ezzedine Aybak, an Arab warrior, during the Crusades and to have been used by Lawrence of Arabia.

Hundreds of trucks filled with goods manufactured in Jordan lined the highway between Amman and Ruweished. News of Jordanian participation in an international boycott against Iraq had not reached this outpost. Col. Mohammed Izzat al Shamayla, the Jordanian officer in charge of Ruweished, said trucks were passing through in both directions.

The officer noted that Sri Lankans, Indians and Filipinos were crossing the border to Jordan along with Lebanese fleeing from Kuwait by way of Iraq. Reading from a statement, he added that only 25 Americans had left since Wednesday as opposed to several hundred Arabs who were still streaming into Jordan with cars packed with suitcases and mattresses.

A senior Jordanian officer, who had hitched a ride to his army base, said he did not understand politics. But, he added, he will remain loyal to Jordan and its king. "When the crunch comes, we are all Jordanian. We have full trust in King Hussein. You can never know how much we love him."