Iraq’s neighbour Jordan rife with war rumours



WAR is everywhere in Jordan.

From the glitzy shops and supermarkets in downtown Amman and the capital’s smart government offices to the largest refugee camp in the Middle East, everywhere everyone seems to be talking about what is happening in the country’s north-eastern neighbour, Iraq.

In nearly every coffee shop, customers stay glued to the television or radio for the latest news from the war zone as they nibble away on local delicacies – shawarma (sandwich) and hummus (chickpeas).

At the Uncle Kamar Restaurant in eastern Amman, owner Hatham Saloo said his customers did nothing but swop gossip or rumours about the conflict.

‘It is all that we are ever talking about now,’ he said. ‘We are Arabs, we have the same blood. Of course we will be concerned about what happens in Iraq.’

People are getting their daily diet of information about the war in Iraq, whose capital Baghdad is 700 km from Jordan’s border, thanks to the extensive coverage provided by the Arab media.

Tune in to one of at least 10 TV stations and there is a strong chance it will be airing a news programme on the war.

Some, like Al-Jazeera, the Saudi-based NBC, Dubai TV, and Jordanian TV, have been airing shows around the clock, featuring periodic footage of Baghdad being bombed, US President George W. Bush speaking to the American people and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in conferences with his ministers.

There are also interviews with Arab experts and intellectuals who give their spin on the latest developments.

Mr Saloo, who spent three months in jail in the United States on suspicion of being involved in the Sept 11 attacks, noted: ‘We only believe our own media. People here do not trust CNN and the BBC because they are not giving fair coverage.’

Amid the media blitz on the war, the city swirls with conspiracy theories. One making the rounds is that the US is trying hard to capture the port of Umm Qasr in southern Iraq to use it to offload biological and chemical weapons on the Iraqi soil to vindicate US claims that Mr Saddam had such weapons.

Disbelief in the Iraq war is underpinned by a tetchy relationship with the US – especially among the country’s Palestinians that make up 60 per cent of the five-million-strong population.

In Baqaa camp where 120,000 of Palestinian refugees live, slogans speak to the converted.

Whitewashed graffiti along a muddy alley declares ‘Islam is the solution’, and signs overhead exhort residents to remember God.

That message is increasingly being heard with the onset of war – with fiery speeches from Muslim preachers amid the sounds of traditional Arabic music and under the watchful eye of the Jordanian secret service.

This is where many rallies are organised.

Last week, thousands took to the streets to protest against the war, forcing the country’s monarch King Abdullah II to make a personal plea to end the demonstrations.

Others have been less vociferous, lighting candles along the Shmeisani Street of Culture as a mark of silent protest.

Generally, the mood here is one of silent anger. The war is not just about Arab solidarity but also hitting where it hurts most – the pocket.

The main casualty would be the Jordanian economy. Iraq is Jordan’s biggest trading partner and its only supplier of oil. In return for foodstuff, medicines and clothes, Jordan receives Iraqi oil at extremely favourable prices.

It is also affecting the tourist and retail industries. Five-star hotels, for example, have suffered a drastic 70 per cent fall in occupancy rates – with the exception of one or two which have as their clients foreign journalists here to cover the war.

Along the upmarket Swefeya shopping street, store owners from fashionable boutiques to cosmetic shops bemoan a drop of at least 50 per cent in business. But in the Al Sofara market a block away, it is boom time for markets and provision stores.

Mr Mamdooh Albed, who runs one of the largest bakeries in the area, said: ‘People are stocking up because of the war. One woman even bought 15 kg of bread for her family, saying she was afraid that there might not be enough over the next few days.’

Petrol stations are also seeing a rise in business.

Nightclubs, a big hit in Jordan, have become a casualty of the war. Sales executive Rose Haddani said she and her friends had decided to stay away from clubs because of fears of terrorist attacks.

Others like 34-year-old Manal Ayad prefer to head home immediately after work to catch the latest news on television. She said: ‘You never know. Saddam might just decide to fire a missile into Jordan.’

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