Jordan at risk of becoming cockpit for proxy wars here

Murders in Amman point to a new strategy by Saddam aiming at bypassing beleaguered King
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Is Jordan becoming like Lebanon in the past, a place where other Middle East powers fight proxy wars? Last weekend in the capital, Amman, a gang cut the throats of a senior Iraqi diplomat, two important businessmen, and five others. Patrick Cockburn explains why Jordan is becoming a more dangerous place.

It was as if the killers wanted to advertise their savagery. They cut the throats of each of their eight victims and then stabbed them through the heart.

"The stabbing was carried out by professional murderers," says Doctor Moumim al Hadid, director of forensic medicine at the police department in Amman, after he looked at evidence from the autopsies.

There were other signs that this was not a crime carried out by ordinary criminals. The murderers showed great patience.

The forensic evidence proves that three hours passed between their first murder and the last as they waited for their victims to arrive. The last two to die, Hikmat al-Hajou, the Iraqi deputy ambassador to Jordan and his wife Laila, may have received a call on their mobile phone, luring them to the house where they were killed.

It began in the evening last Saturday. Sami George, 63, an Iraqi businessman along with Diotisios Lidaki, 57, his Greek girlfriend, was holding an iftar, the meal which breaks the fast at the end of the day in Ramadan. But before the guests could arrive four or five men burst in, killing Mr George's Egyptian bodyguard and an Egyptian friend.

The men, speaking Arabic with an Iraqi accent, according to Ms Lidaki, who alone survived the evening, tied up and gagged their victims. Then they waited for Namir Ochi, another Iraqi businessman who lived in Lebanon and, like Sami George, with whom he often stayed, came from Kirkuk, in northern Iraq. He had the reputation of being comfortably off, but the wealthy member of his family was his London-based brother Nazmi, whose companies are worth some $1.2 bn.

Ms Lidaki, who only lived because her throat was slashed rather than cut, and a knife missed her heart, said Mr Ochi and the killers "exchanged accusations and the Iraqis said he owed them large sums of money.

"Ochi refused their demands, so they stabbed him and attacked all those present."

Finally, just before the murderers departed, Hikmat al-Hajou, the Iraqi deputy ambassador, arrived, possibly summoned by a phone-call, and was killed along with his wife.

The crime, for which nobody has been arrested, sent shock-waves through Jordan. The professional ferocity of the killings and the fact that Namir Ochi was reported to owe money in Baghdad, argues that the killers belonged to the Iraqi security forces. In 1986 Nasser, another Ochi brother, was executed in Baghdad for allegedly offering a bribe, showing that the family was unpopular with the regime.

But the killings have wider implications. Suddenly other Middle East powers feel free to pursue their enemies in Amman as they once did in Beirut. Last September Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, sent agents of Mossad, the Israeli foreign-intelligence service, to poison Khalid Meshal, a leader of Hamas, the militant Islamic group, in a street in Amman only a mile from where Sami George was killed.

Jordan has always been one of the smaller players in power battles in the Middle East. Sandwiched between Iraq to the east and Israel to the west, Syria to the north and Saudi Arabia to the south, it is weaker than any of its neighbours. It was badly damaged by the Gulf War when it refused to join the anti-Iraq alliance. To return to favour in Washington it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 and broke with Iraq the following year when it gave refuge to General Hussein Kamel, the chief lieutenant of Saddam Hussein who had fled Baghdad.

King Hussein had no choice. He needed American protection and money. He wanted to rebuild relations with the Gulf Arabs. And, to a degree, his strategy has worked. The US gives aid worth $225m a year. But the treaty with Israel and the break with Iraq were never popular with ordinary Jordanians. Neither policy has paid the dividends expected.

In December Saddam Hussein executed four Jordanian students who were under arrest for smuggling pounds 500 worth of goods. His motive was apparently a warning to Jordan not to interfere in Iraqi internal affairs. General Wafiq al-Sammarai, the former head of Iraqi military intelligence, says the Iraqi leader decided to kill the students because his security had intercepted a message from the Iraqi opposition in Jordan to General Talib al-Sadoun, a senior Iraqi general, in Baghdad.

Iraqi policy is becoming clear: cultivate Jordanian opinion but snub the King. Immediately after the killing of Sami George and the others in Amman President Saddam announced he was releasing over 50 Jordanian prisoners in Iraq. But he did so in a deliberately offensive manner. Ignoring repeatedly requests from King Hussein for their freedom he promised their release instead to Leith Shbeilat, an important opposition figure.

So angered was the Jordanian government at Mr Shbeilat's success, after King Hussein was rebuffed, that they did everything to prevent him from returning in triumph. Journalists covering his arrival were roughed up by the police. Relatives of the prisoners were told to go home.

Sami George and his friends may have been killed because of a business deal gone wrong, but the manner of their death may point to a new ferocity in the way Iraq intends to deal with Jordan in future.