The Bush administration has changed its tone toward Jordan's King Hussein, whose close relationship with Iraq had drawn criticism from Washington and whose compliance with the United Nations trade embargo against Iraq has been under constant suspicion here.
As the Jordanian monarch flew to Baghdad for a meeting with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater yesterday described the king in sympathetic terms, calling him a "pivotal" player in Middle East diplomacy deserving of U.S. economic support for the plight of his cash-strapped kingdom.
In contrast, a week ago, the White House and State Department were pursuing several strategies to back the king into a corner and force him to choose between Saddam and the U.S.-led international effort to confront the Iraqi president.
President Bush earlier had aimed at Jordan a strong public statement criticizing any Arab leader who appeared to be apologizing for the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and warning that Jordan would not get U.S. financial aid unless it agreed to adhere to U.N. trade sanctions against Iraq.
One option considered and rejected last week was to send a high-level envoy to the king to tell him that Jordan's inclusion in the international economic plan drafted by the White House would depend on his strict compliance with the embargo and an end to all intelligence-sharing and military-training activities with Iraq.
One administration official said yesterday that late last week the strategy was changed to one of giving Hussein more room to maneuver, to help him financially and ignore the small amount of food, medicine and other cargo that has been moving through Jordan to Iraq.
"Jordan has earned a great deal of help," Fitzwater said yesterday. "They are suffering a major consequence of this conflict, and that's why we are organizing international support on their behalf."
Fitzwater acknowledged that U.S. television network cameras had recorded transport trucks rolling across the border from Jordan to Iraq after the U.N. trade embargo took effect, but he dismissed this "leakage" as inconsequential to the overall effectiveness of the embargo.
"There's bound to be some of that," Fitzwater said, "but it's not a major problem in terms of the overall effectiveness of the sanctions, which we believe are beginning to bite."
A senior official said the administration's frustration and anger with Hussein in the early weeks of the crisis centered on his publicly "almost siding with" Saddam and "not with any lack of understanding on our part that the king would have very serious domestic problems" if he strictly enforced the sanctions.
Referring to the Jordanian port of Aqaba, a major transshipment point for Iraqi cargoes, the senior official said, "No one expected that he could shut it down overnight." But the U.S. blockade of the Red Sea approaches to Aqaba have eliminated any concern about leakage there.
Also, the official said, the king has "toned down" his statements that seemed to support Saddam's claims against Kuwait and question U.S. policy. "We are more satisfied with what he has been doing," the official said.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Pete Williams said there continues to be no evidence substantiating reports emanating from Israeli sources that Jordan has been flying reconnaissance flights near the Saudi Arabian border and sharing the information with Iraq.
Staff writer Ann Devroy contributed to this report.