Why Jordan Is Terrified of a U.S. Attack on Iraq

Jordan's King Abdullah is under mounting pressure. First, there's a deepening refugee crisis. An estimated 200,000 Palestinians have spilled over Jordan's border since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalated two years ago, and thousands more are camped near the Allenby Bridge to Jordan, clamoring to get in. At the same time, King Abdullah is afraid that a U.S.-led attack on Saddam Hussein's Iraq will spur hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to flee to Jordan. And Jordanian officials worry that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon might take advantage of a U.S. attack on Iraq to expel Palestinians from the West Bank. "Jordan would suffer almost as much as Iraq if there is a war. We could face massive social unrest," says Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan.

If Jordan, a long-standing U.S. client state, is destabilized, then American influence in the region will decline even further. Like his late father, King Hussein, King Abdullah may be pro-American, relatively tolerant, and even a rare Arab advocate of liberal economics. But that doesn't count for much in an increasingly turbulent region. Presiding over a politically volatile country wedged between Israel and Iraq, Abdullah fears getting swept away by regional storms. If anti-American protests break out among the Jordanian population as the region slides toward war, the King will find it difficult to maintain his pro-American position. And if the U.S. does nothing to help Abdullah through this potential conflict, "it would be sending a very negative symbol to everybody that we just don't care about our friends," says Edward S. Walker Jr., president of the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Abdullah has been lobbying Washington vigorously to delay or avoid a war with Baghdad. Although Jordan's economy is expected to grow 5% this year, having finally recovered from the effects of the last gulf war, the country is heavily dependent on Iraq. Jordan receives all of its energy at cut-rate prices from Baghdad, and business with Iraq represents 20% of Jordan's $6 billion in external trade. "The loss of cheap oil and the crucial Iraqi market would have a devastating impact on our economy," says Fahed Fanek, an independent Jordanian economist. He estimates the added cost of buying oil at international prices would amount to $800 million a year.

Joblessness is also a concern. The government says unemployment in Jordan totals 14%, but independent economists put the figure at closer to 20%. The influx of Palestinian refugees will only worsen the problem. And since about half of the kingdom's population of 5 million is Palestinian, some analysts say greater numbers could pose a political threat as well. A flood of immigrants "would destabilize Abdullah's monarchy by increasing the number of Palestinians. That is the fear," says Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution.

Jordan's biggest worry is that Israel would try to turn Jordan into a de facto Palestinian state by expelling tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank. Sharon once favored this idea, analysts say, but no longer does. Still, such a move is strongly supported by some of Israel's far-right parties. That may be one reason King Abdullah is now keeping communications with Israeli leaders secret and no longer welcoming them openly to Amman. The dilemma facing this moderate Arab leader is likely to intensify in the weeks ahead.

By Neal Sandler in Jerusalem, with Stan Crock in Washington

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