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Talk of War Puts Arabs on Same Wavelength: As Their King Plans to Meet Bush, Jordanians Recoil at the Prospect of Hosting US Strikes on Iraq
13 July 2002
The men from Iraq began lining up at 6am yesterday, laborers and peddlers waiting their turn for the 12-hour bone-shaking ride across the desert to Baghdad.
Hundreds of Jordanian cars and lorries and orange and white taxis from Iraq do the run every day. Four fully booked flights a week from Amman to Baghdad serve a merchant class grown prosperous by swapping cheap oil for Jordanian goods during the long years of the embargo on Iraq.
None of the travelers or the businessmen sees Saddam Hussein's Iraq as part of the "axis of evil" as President George Bush puts it, but as a Jordan's valued neighbor.
Reports this week that Jordan could serve as a staging post for the war America wants to wage on Iraq caused consternation in government circles - where they were strenuously denied - and led to popular rumblings of anger.
"This is completely unacceptable. We are a part of the Arab world and the Iraqis are our brothers," says Munir Nabulsi, the Jordanian proprietor of a fleet of cars which take documents and small parcels to Iraq.
For the moment most Jordanians find it unimaginable that King Abdullah would approve an American request to use Jordanian air bases for a strike on Iraq, because public opposition runs so deep.
"It is inconceivable even to speak of such a thing," says Hashem Gharaybeh, who heads the Council of Professional Associations, representing doctors, dentists, engineers and others. "It will never happen."
Two weeks ago, Mr Gharaybe met Jordan's prime minister, Ali Abu Ragheb, and other senior officials. He says he received their assurance that the country would not allow itself to be used as a staging post for a war on Iraq.
But that puts the king in a quandary when he visits Washington later this month. It will be his sixth meeting with President Bush, and the frequency underlines a relationship forged through Jordan's support for America's war on Afghanistan.
In return, America doubled its military and economic aid to Jordan to $500m, and there is a request before Congress for a further $100m.
But the US largesse could require some return, especially these days when American military planners are scouting out potential bases for use in commando and search-and-rescue operations in a potential war on Iraq: in Qatar, Turkey, and reportedly Jordan.
The Muafa Salti air base in Azraq, which is familiar to the US military from the joint exercises they have held with Jordan since the mid-80s, reportedly fits the bill.
But not to ordinary Jordanians: and that underlines the king's predicament when he meets President Bush and is briefed on the latest battle plans.
"Simply put, the Jordanian government does not want to be identified as 'an accomplice'," says Adnan Abu-Odeh, who was the political adviser to the late King Hussein when America first went to war to topple Saddam Hussein after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
Jordan sat out that war, and King Abdullah faces immense popular pressure to do the same this time around.
On Thursday Mr Ragheb called a press conference to quash reports that Jordan would allow US ground troops on its soil or US military flights through its airspace.
The forcefulness of the denial seems to have brought a measure of calm. Yesterday Mr Gharaybeh argued that the US would not ask Jordan to undertake a role that could prove so destabilizing to the country.
"American aid to Jordan is to promote economic stability and to strengthen its role in the region, so if they ask Jordan to do such a thing it will wipe out all the value of that aid," he said.
Even without a direct Jordanian role, there is increasing anger here about the prospect of a military strike on Iraq, particularly when America has been seen as reluctant to exert its power to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"The whole atmosphere is different now from in 1990," Mr Abu-Odeh said yesterday. "In 1990 blood was on the ground. The Iraqi army was in Kuwait, and the whole world wanted to do something. Now only one country wants to try to do something about Iraq."
"Iraq has been under siege for 12 years, and Arabs are also much more disaffected with America than they were in 1990 because of the Palestinian issue."
More than 60% of Jordan's five million citizens are of Palestinian origin. The government has moved carefully in the past two years to subdue protests, banning demonstrations and keeping watch on Palestinian refugee camps with secret police.
But tempers have been flaring against since April, when Israeli forces invaded and re-occupied the West Bank.
The country's powerful Islamist movement declared a boycott of US businesses in Jordan. In Amman, local branches of McDonald's and Burger King were forced to lay off staff; highly westernized families gave up Coca Cola.
"If the government succumbs to the US and accepts US troops here, it is letting down the Arab people as a whole, and it is going to find strong opposition from the people," says Hamza Mansour, the secretary-general of the Islamic Action Front.
"If this is a decision taken by the Jordanian government it will be very dangerous, and no one can predict what the outcome will be. Such an immoral decision will definitely stir strong reactions."
Suzanne Goldenberg, Amman