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November 12, 2002

For this war, Jordan switches sides

If you are Iraqi living in an Arab country that is not Iraq, you wonder why the Arabs are opposed to toppling
Saddam. But then, who ever said there was a rational approach to matters in the ME?
AMMAN - A group of Iraqi exiles sitting down at the end of a day of fasting in Café Central in downtown Amman are not worried that the US wants to attack Iraq. But they are surprised by the opposition to it from many Arabs.

"Arabs don't know what we've been through, they don't know what life is like under Saddam's regime," says Jamal Boustani, an Iraqi writer in exile. "I don't understand why they're angry and why they want to demonstrate against a US war to topple Saddam when we are actually hoping for change."

Such views are not uncommon among the some 300,000 Iraqis in Jordan. They are skeptical of Saddam Hussein's apparent softening toward his opponents in releasing political prisoners last month, and in declaring an amnesty. The Iraqi embassy in Amman says some 700 new passports have been issued to exiles since then, but few believe that figure. And no one thinks that any outspoken opponent of the Iraqi regime is among the applicants.

Jordan is a haven for Iraqis fleeing Saddam Hussein. The kingdom is regarded as among the most stable and loyal allies of the West in the region. But many Jordanians vehemently oppose an attack on Iraq.

During the Gulf War the late King Hussein represented the will of the people in keeping Jordan out of the coalition against Iraq. Other Arab countries such as Egypt and Syria backed the US and received its largesse in return.

Jordan not only angered the US but also Gulf nations that had given Jordan much-needed economic aid, and provided work opportunities for its people. Jordan was severely punished for its perceived pro-Saddam stance after the Gulf War, and many of those sources of money dried up.

As trade with Iraq collapsed, Jordan suffered more than most of Iraq's neighbors. Only recently have some of the Gulf countries restored their ties to the old levels. And it is only after the 1998 oil-for-food protocol that trade has recovered. US aid to Jordan has also risen, to a record US$235 million in civilian aid and some US$200 million in military support in the current US financial year.

The tables seem to have turned in the Arab world. Syria and Egypt are now counselling the US against attacking Iraq, while the Jordanian government is said to be quietly aiding the US effort. In the streets of Amman this has inevitably led to grumbling that "America is running this country"