Jordan king blasts war to appease angry citizens

IRAQ WAR

THE ARAB RESPONSE
NEWS ANALYSIS

Washington sympathetic to ally’s predicament, say analysts.

FACED with growing public anger over developments in Iraq, Jordan’s King Abdullah II has condemned the United States-led war as an ‘invasion’ and described dead Iraqi civilian victims as ‘martyrs’.

The change in tone reflects the fact that the Jordanian monarch finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place – the same dilemma faced by his father in the 1991 Gulf War.

Should he align his kingdom with neighbouring Iraq, from which it gets most of its oil, or appease the US?

A decade ago, his father King Hussein came out against international intervention after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. However, the young king has opted to play a game of political brinkmanship, risking alienation of the United States by appearing to be sympathetic to Baghdad.

But observers reckon it is a calculated strategy which America understands: The king wants to remain a crucial but reluctant US ally while at the same time not antagonise the anti-war sentiments of his subjects.

Analysts said his use of the emotive Arabic word for ‘martyr’, reserved for those killed in conflict against Islam’s enemies, signalled a shift from previous remarks that had also avoided describing the war as an invasion.

A day later, Prime Minister Ali Abu al-Ragheb summoned US Ambassador Edward Gnehm to express Jordan’s ‘condemnation of the increase in killing and destruction as a result of the invasion of Iraq’.

Observers believe the comments underscored a decision to move closer to the national mood. Many Jordanians are angry with their government for not adopting a tougher stance against the war.

The king saw the problem coming for months and had two ways to deal with it. One was a campaign to unite Jordanians and put a lid on the powder keg.

Billboards, streetlights and telephone poles across Amman carry the Arabic slogan ‘Jordan First’ next to an image of hands hoisting the national flag. Alongside them are countless posters of a smiling King Abdullah – either in Arab garb, a Western suit or an army uniform – with his family or late father. The campaign has had little success.

The other approach – which has also seen few results – was to stifle dissent, especially among militant Palestinians in the country, at times sending in tanks and thousands of officers to break up protests.

The rise of Islamic-based politics represents a challenge for the king. Long-delayed parliamentary elections scheduled for June will almost certainly give a voice to Islamic activists.

There are also concerns about the consequences of the war. Jordan shares a 182km border with Iraq. With 300,000 Iraqis already living here, some of them refugees from the first Gulf war, this war could leave Jordan inundated with more refugees.

The new war could also inflame the Israeli-Palestinian issue further, prompting more Palestinians to seek sanctuary in Jordan.

Economically, while the country is less dependent on Iraq today than it was 10 years ago, it still imports most of its oil from its neighbour, half of it free and the rest at subsidised rates.

The US is an even more important economic partner as Jordan recently concluded a free trade accord with it and relies on it heavily for development aid.

It would seem that the king’s comments last week could strain those ties. But analysts said his gamble should pay off because Washington would understand his predicament.

Why would the US cut off a key player in its Middle East policy for 50 years? Indeed, Jordan views its US alliance as its main strategic relationship.

For its part, Amman has allowed the discreet stationing of US troops here which have had an important role in the war. Military cooperation has been buttressed by more aid, joint training and contacts. The king has underpinned those links.

For Washington, its ties with Jordan highlight the difficulties it faces in the Arab world.

The longer the war lasts, the more difficult it might be to manage ties with countries that once fully backed action against Baghdad.

Like Jordan, the US is also increasingly caught between a rock and a hard place.

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