Hussein fails to calm city's fury over bread

Patrick Cockburn visits Karak, gripped by curfew after food riots
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"They will start again soon, God willing," said Nasser, a heavily built young man, as he lounged against the front wall of the burnt-out shell of the Jordan Bank in the centre of Karak. A bank clerk himself, he said he approved of what the demonstrators had done over the weekend, adding: "We don't want the government here."

Less than 100 yards away heavily armed Jordanian soldiers were sitting on an armoured personnel carrier guarding a crossroads. Their presence did not seem to make Nasser and his friends nervous. "Nobody is frightened here," he said. "At least the soldiers are better than the police." In Amman, 50 miles north of Karak, King Hussein and his Prime Minister, Abdul- Karim Kabariti, were confidently claiming that order had been restored and that the riots, which started on Friday, had been fomented by the Iraqis.

"They say that because they have to say something," Mohammed, a construction worker who joined the group outside the Jordan Bank, said.

There is a reason why people in Karak, an ancient hilltop town with a population of 25,000, remain confident in the face of the overwhelming presence of the Jordanian army. Beside many of the armoured personnel carriers, the soldiers were sipping tea with local young men. "They are all the same family," a Palestinian driver from Amman said. "Where do you think the army and police are recruited from?"

The government is treading softly because Karak and the hill towns of southern Jordan are the bedrock of its support. But the riots which began after prayers on Friday were extremely fierce. "Seven banks were burned out here," the manager of the Arab Bank said as he poked through its blackened interior. "It will cost about $50,000 to put this right."

Down the road, two yellow earth-moving machines were scooping out the ashes which are all that remain of the interiors of four shops unfortunate enough to be on the ground floor of the local ministry of education building, which came under attack as a symbol of government authority.

It is not easy to get into Karak. Since Saturday the army and police have sealed the town off and imposed a curfew. After an abortive attempt to use the one road from the Dead Sea, I entered the city from the east, where I was curtly told by an army officer at a checkpoint to report to the police headquarters. Having first said I would have to wait "because a big boss is here", the deputy chief of police finally relented and signed a letter allowing me to go on.

Ever since the riots started, the government has been ambivalent over the best way to treat the demonstrators. People in Karak say that the over- reaction of the riot police, now withdrawn, swelled the initial protest. In some parts of the city, water and electricity have been cut off. Telephones only work within Karak and it is impossible to call Amman.

"About 350 people have been arrested and we heard from somebody who was released that they are being knocked about by the police," a local observer, who did not want his name mentioned, said. He said that elite special forces, hitherto held in reserve within the medieval walls of the great crusader fortress of Karak, were beginning to advance into the town.

Down one alleyway Ahmed al-Garada, the elderly owner of the Shallalan Restaurant, was happy to talk about the cause of the riot. He said: "The problem is everything, not just bread, is very expensive. The poor cannot buy anything. Only the rich can afford to live." He was mystified by the claim of Iraqi involvement, as was everybody else in Karak, saying: "That is between the leaders, between King Hussein and Saddam [President Saddam Hussein]. It is nothing to do with us." He added that he had had no water for three days.

As he spoke two soldiers entered the restaurant, but Mr Garada was unworried by their presence, which turned out to be in pursuit of a free meal. Two Egyptians standing near by were much more anxious. "Do not mention our names," they said. "They could take us away just like that," one said, crossing his wrists in a gesture to indicate how quick he could be handcuffed.

In the background, Jordan Radio was giving the midday news, the lead item being a massacre in Algeria, followed by the Lebanese elections and events in Chechnya. Of Karak and the riots which have produced the biggest domestic crisis in Jordan this decade, there was no mention.