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Jordan: Hussein Seen As Peacemaker, Statesman

  • Charles Recknagel

Prague, 8 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The funeral of Jordan's King Hussein today brought together scores of state leaders, including some who are bitter enemies, in a final tribute to a man who often sought to be a peacemaker for his region.

U.S. President Bill Clinton and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair paid their respects to the former monarch. So did Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who traveled to Amman despite suffering repeated illness in recent months.

Before leaving for Jordan to attend today's ceremonies, Clinton paid tribute to King Hussein. He said that the monarch had a rare gift for bringing people together by reminding them: "We are working not only for ourselves but for eternity."

The U.S. president's praise of Hussein's conciliatory abilities was borne out by the presence of several of Washington's own most bitter foes at the funeral, including Iraq's Vice President Taha Mohieddin Maaruf and Sudan's President Omar al-Beshir.

Washington and London carried out punitive strikes against Baghdad two months ago over Iraqi non-cooperation with United Nations arms inspections. Last year, the U.S. struck alleged terrorist sites in Sudan following the twin bombings of two of its embassies in east Africa.

Other long-time enemies also temporarily set aside differences to honor King Hussein today. Thus, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended the funeral alongside officials from the Palestinian HAMAS (Islamic Resistance Movement), which has never given up armed struggle against the Jewish state.

Even Kuwait, long at odds with Jordan, sent its Crown Prince Saad al-Abdallah al-Sabah. Kuwait broke diplomatic relations with Jordan for its support of Iraq after the 1990 invasion of the emirate.

Analysts say that many of the state leaders attending the funeral came to honor King Hussein as a peacemaker, while even those who have opposed the Mideast peace process were there to pay tribute to his skills as a regional leader.

Dr. Peter Jones, a expert on the Middle East at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden, says that the presence of friends and foes alike at King Hussein's funeral is a measure of his success in keeping bridges open to all sides.

"It is partly a tribute to King Hussein's dexterity and the way in which he has managed to position Jordan in such a way that it is not a mortal enemy of any of these camps, though obviously he has been pro-Western for much of the later part of his life. I think he has had to do this for reasons of geography and economics, but he's been very aware of the fact that Jordan is not a wealthy country, not a powerful country and yet by virtue of geography it inhabits an extremely sensitive position in the Middle East so he has had a long history of not closing off his bridges to anybody."

Jones says that the world's leaders also admired King Hussein's ability to lead his country for more than 40 years and make it a key regional player despite the area's turbulent politics:

"I think these people are also paying tribute to the fact that he survived for 43 years on the throne. Nobody expected him to do that, no one really expected Jordan itself to survive this long as a country and there is a great deal of respect for the way he played the game extremely skillfully." The presence of Syria's President Hafez al-Assad at Hussein's funeral is a case in point. Syria and Jordan have had a long-standing enmity going back to the period after World War One, when Britain and France set up the two countries from the remains of the Ottoman Empire. Syrians have long felt that much of what became Jordan should have been part of Syria. More recently, the two countries' relations also have been severely strained by Jordan's separate peace treaty with Israel in 1994.

But Jones says Assad and others who opposed King Hussein's politics still found reason to admire him as a rival:

"In the Arab world the question of whether one regards King Hussein as a peacemaker is one of whether one appreciates the peace process. But he is recognized as a man who had the courage to take courses that were perhaps unpopular in some respects both in his own country and the wider Arab world but which he knew to be right for his country."

While the world's leaders paid tribute today to the departed king and met with his successor, King Abdullah, analysts note that Hussein's funeral may mark the start of an uncertain period in the Middle East. Many of the region's aging leaders face their own mortality.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak is 70 years old, and so is Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Syria's Assad is just a year younger. None of them have clearly named a successor. At the same time, Saudi Arabia's ailing King Fahd has already left most of the running of his kingdom to Crown Prince Abdullah -- who is himself 76 years old.