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Iraq: Jordanian King Issues Strong Criticism Of War

Jordan's King Abdullah yesterday condemned in unusually strong terms the deaths of "innocent people" in the war in Iraq. RFE/RL reports that the move was made in a bid to address criticism of the king's government.

Prague, 3 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- During the 1991 Gulf War, Jordan sided with Iraq when U.S.-led forces ousted Iraqi occupation troops from Kuwait. This time, Amman -- which relies heavily on U.S. aid -- has decided to host U.S. troops for purely defensive purposes. Security officials, however, are worried that a protracted war with heavy civilian casualties could transform the rage of Jordanians into acts of sabotage and unrest.

Osama al-Sharif -- chief editor of the Jordanian weekly "The Star" -- explains to RFE/RL that Jordan, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, is in a critical situation, trying to balance two conflicting interests.

"The government, of course, sees itself in a position where it has to care about and protect Jordan's interests. It understands the difficult position it finds itself in, in terms of having to show sympathy for the Iraqi people. At the same time, it has to understand the political realities. Jordan and the U.S. have a special relationship. The U.S. provides aid and grants to Jordan. And in that sense, the government is trying to tread this fine line cautiously," al-Sharif said.

Jordan's King Abdullah yesterday voiced strong opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, for the first time calling it an invasion. In an interview with Jordan's official Petra news agency, the monarch expressed his "pain and sadness" over civilian war casualties in Iraq, whom he described as "innocent martyrs."

The king also voiced opposition to a possible Iraqi leadership imposed by outside forces if Saddam Hussein's regime is ousted.

King Abdullah said Jordan has repeatedly refused to open its airspace to coalition forces, and strongly denied media reports alleging that U.S. troops could deploy through Jordan to attack Iraq.

Officially, Jordan has allowed hundreds of U.S. troops to deploy on its territory in order to man antimissile Patriot batteries that could defend the country's airspace.

Today, Jordan's prime minister summoned the U.S. ambassador and denounced the killing of civilians in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Petra news agency reported.

Hani Hourani is the director of the New Jordan (Al-Urdun al-Jadid) Research Center, a think tank based in Amman. He said that these statements are meant as a response to criticism of the government's position. "[The king] is [delivering] a certain message to the Jordanian people, to the Arab people, to other governments, saying, 'We are not part of this war.' And he [wanted] to give a strong message because there are lots of rumors, of demands in Jordan. And there are [also] certain criticisms by the Iraqi government, by the Arab media against the Jordanian government," Hourani said.

Sharif noted that King Abdullah has repeatedly pledged that the country would not be party to a coalition against Iraq. In the past, the king had been active in trying to convince the U.S. administration that war was not the proper solution for disarming Iraq.

"Officially, the government has always been against the war. It's repeatedly called for a swift and quick end to this war to spare civilian casualties, and to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq. The king has been warning against such a possibility even before the crisis began back in October, I believe. In his view, the developments in Iraq -- resorting to a military solution -- would bring much more instability to the region," Hourani said.

Nevertheless, the king's government has been strongly criticized by Jordanian political activists, former civil servants, and professionals for failing to speak out against the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Nearly 100 Jordanian public figures, including four former prime ministers, have petitioned King Abdullah to "clearly" declare the "illegality" of the aggression on Iraq, the "Al-Arab al-Yawm" daily reported.

The Associated Press reported that the Islamic Action Front, Jordan's most powerful opposition group, yesterday issued a religious edict, or fatwa, saying the Jordanian government had committed a "great sin and an apostasy" against the principles and interests of the Islamic nation by allowing U.S. forces into the country.

Meanwhile, newspapers have been paying tribute to Iraq's "heroic" resistance against the U.S. and British war machine. As anger soared at the images of destruction, demonstrations frequently erupted around the country. Thousands of Jordanians protested on 28 March in the southern city of Maan after Friday prayers during which preachers urged Jordanian authorities to expel U.S. troops. In the capital, hundreds of worshippers chanted slogans accusing Arab leaders of "selling Iraq for a few dollars," Agence France Presse reported.

Roufan Nahass, a reporter for "The Jordan Times," stresses that Jordan, as both Iraq's neighbor and a Muslim and Arab country, "feels sympathy" for Iraqis, not for Saddam Hussein.

"Iraq is a neighboring country for Jordan, and there is a [long] relationship between the two countries. Jordanians really feel bad about what's happening. Through demonstrations and rallies, they've been expressing their feeling about what's happening -- you know -- killings of innocents. We love our neighbors and we stand beside them. Back in the first Gulf War, it was a big thing when Iraq entered another Arab country, and tried to occupy Kuwait. This time, we feel, as Jordanians, that the coalition -- the U.S. and British forces -- are trying to invade Iraq, and not just to liberate them. That's why you can see a lot of Iraqis returning from Amman to Baghdad to fight," Nahass told RFE/RL.

Official Jordanian figures show that about 7,000 Iraqi refugees have left Amman to return to defend their homeland. According to some estimates, there are 300,000 exiled Iraqis in the country.

Hourani said King Abdullah's move to steer policy away from support of Baghdad to the backing of U.S. war goals against a fellow Arab and a Muslim country poses grave domestic risks. "It will not be a quick war. Day by day this war is threatening our political stability. You can't keep [people] calm for a long time. Now they are watching TV, [and for now] they are expressing themselves through peaceful actions. But in the future, you don't know what those people will do. There are certain signs [indicating that] any ordinary citizen can harm the security of the Americans," Hourani said.

Al-Sharif agreed, saying dissatisfaction has not yet reached a "crisis level" in Jordan. "Every government in the region now is worried about public reaction and public anger toward what's happening in Iraq. And there is the same thing here in Jordan. [But] we have not noticed some unusual reaction [yet]," al-Sharif said.

Nevertheless, Jordanian authorities have stepped up security around key installations, such as power stations and grain silos, as they brace for possible acts of sabotage by extremist groups.