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Jordan's Dilemma:  Unwanted War and Unwanted Regime in Iraq - 2003-03-05

As one of Iraq's neighbors, the desert Kingdom of Jordan is very concerned about the possibility of a war next door. Jordanians are overwhelmingly against a war, and the Jordanian government is continuing a diplomatic offensive to find a peaceful solution.

This fashionable cafe in Amman's Shmeisani neighborhood is a favorite meeting place for young Jordanians.

Sitting over hot coffee with his friends, 28-year-old Feraj talks about the number one topic in the country, the looming war in Iraq.

"We're all looking for peace in the region," he said. "The inspectors should tell us if they [Iraq] have weapons of mass destruction."

Those sentiments are echoed by his friend Lara.

"I'm not pro-war. I feel bad for the Iraqi people. I prefer peace. I don't like Saddam Hussein… I'm not with [in favor of] biological weapons," she said.

These views are held by an overwhelming majority of Jordanians. Most people here, as elsewhere throughout the region, say they do not want war. They don't like Saddam Hussein either, but they are also suspicious of American motives.

George Hawatmeh, chief editor of Jordan's al-Rai newspaper, says it's an extremely emotional issue.

"It is very difficult. Our people cannot look at it very objectively, we're emotionally involved, as you might imagine, everybody cares about the Iraqi people," he said. "We feel very close to them, we share common borders, families live on either side of the border. We don't necessarily agree with the way the United States is handling the international situation."

And that causes a problem for Jordan's government, which is caught between public opinion on the one hand and the need not to alienate its friend and ally, the United States.

Mr. Hawatmeh says it's a real dilemma.

"We've been friends and strategic allies for so many years,"he added. "About 20 percent of our exports go to the United States. We receive aid of about $450 million. We share common values, we do share strategic interests with the United States."

Jordan's government seems determined to avoid the mistakes of the past. During the Gulf War of 1991 then-King Hussein opted not to join the U.S.- led coalition against Baghdad and Jordan found itself estranged from Washington and lost valuable U.S. aid.

Now, Jordan's King Abdullah is adamant about continuing to pursue diplomatic initiatives to try to resolve the crisis peacefully. Government officials in Amman privately acknowledge, however, that the government is already thinking about the war's aftermath, what a post-Saddam Hussein government in Iraq will look like and what impact it might have on Jordan.

Oraib Rantawi is the head of the al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman. He says few here believe the American position that Saddam Hussein and his government are a threat to the region and the world. He says there's much more involved.

"I think nobody is convinced about this story of weapons of mass destruction," Mr. Rantawisaid. "I think the main challenge for weapons of mass destruction comes from North Korea or from Israel itself. The story is about [American] reshaping the Middle East."

And, says Mr. Rantawi, it is the prospect of reshaping the Middle East that has governments worried because no one knows what Washington might have in mind. And he says spreading democracy, as President Bush has said, may not be that easy.

"Look, you can't export democracy like Pontiac cars. Saudi Arabia imports plenty of Pontiac cars, but they didn't import any democracy or civil rights or women's rights… Democracy needs democrats, you cannot import democrats from the U.S., they should be here in our society," he explained.

Mr. Rantawi says many in the region will be watching how America deals with Iraq after the war, will it abandon the country after the military operations are over, will it just install a pro-U.S. government and seek to maintain its own interests or will it be serious about nation-building and democracy. And, says Mr. Rantawi, America will not get far if it does not address what people in the region see as the central issue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"I think in the long run the Americans will have success in the area [Iraq]. But this track should be parallel with another track to solve the Palestinian problem because nobody will agree with the United States or accept its claims about Iraq and other Arab regimes, if the Americans remain on this double standard policy supporting Israel, ignoring the Palestinian national rights," he said. "If this policy is not changed, if the Americans do not show seriousness in dealing with the Palestinian cause, I think they will have trouble in the area."

Mr. Rantawi has a dire prediction and a warning to the United States. He says if America deals with Iraq as a colonial power and puts an American general in charge of the country a new wave of terrorism could rise that will threaten the United States and all those countries that sided with it.