Iraq behind bread riots, says Hussein

Patrick Coburn on a conspiracy theory which has no believers
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Karak - King Hussein appeared in a confident, almost jaunty, mood as he blamed Iraq for being the hidden hand behind the riots which followed the decision of his government to double the price of bread.

"The situation is wholly under control," the King told Jordanians in a television interview on Sunday night. "Everything has been very quiet in the country." As for the rioters, who had burned banks and public buildings as symbols of government authority, they "were either educated in Iraq or had sympathies towards Iraq".

The theory of the Iraqi conspiracy finds few believers in Karak, where the riots started after Friday prayers last week, or anywhere else. A local boy had a simpler explanation of what happened. He told a reporter: "Karak is a poor town. I earn 70 Jordanian dinars (pounds 70) a month to support my mother and brother. How can I buy bread?"

Although he is one of the most skilful political players in the Middle East, it is mysterious that King Hussein should appear so confident. For the riots are only the latest of a series of political and economic blows to hit Jordan over the last decade. Sandwiched between Israel, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia, the kingdom, with its 4.2 million people, and no oil, is always the weakest player in the region.

Its economic prosperity is peculiarly vulnerable to diplomatic setbacks because it is dependent on foreign aid and remittances from Jordanians working abroad. Since the Gulf crisis, foreign aid from the US and the Arab oil states has largely dried up because of Jordan's refusal to join the alliance against Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, after his invasion of Kuwait. At the same time, Palestinian workers with Jordanian passports, many of whom have been residents in Kuwait for decades, have been forced to go back to Amman.

Two initiatives in the last two years have failed to change this situation. In 1994, King Hussein signed a peace treaty with Israel. This raised expectations of a "peace dividend" in Jordan in the shape of foreign aid from the US and Europe, as well as more investment. Neither has been forthcoming in the quantities hoped for by Jordanians.

In 1995, in the wake of the flight of General Hussein Kamel al-Majid, President Saddam's son-in-law, to Jordan, the King began to shift away from his previously friendly relations with Iraq. Restrictions were tightened on the road which is Iraq's lifeline across Jordan's eastern desert. Iraqi opposition groups were allowed to base themselves in Amman.

Again, little aid was forthcoming. King Hussein's policies towards Israel and Iraq may have made strategic sense by bringing him closer to Washington and Tel Aviv, but they were never popular. The Israeli ambassador to Amman spent months trying to find somebody who would rent him a house. Even Jordanian dentists said they would not treat Israelis. As for Iraq, although President Saddam has lost the overwhelming popularity he enjoyed in Jordan on the eve of the Gulf war, he is still respected.

Jordan has inflicted more damage on Iraq's leaders than vice-versa over the last year. Not only has King Hussein said it is time for President Saddam to go, but in June Jordan was involved in an abortive conspiracy among army officers in Baghdad which ended in widespread arrests and executions. The Iraqi National Accord, an opposition group favoured by the CIA and Jordanian security and based in Amman, admitted its involvement.

Jordan's shift against Iraq has made it fearful that President Saddam might retaliate. Ven- geance is often part of his policy. But it is highly unlikely that Iraq's leader had anything to do with the riots in Jordan. Iraq has no alternative route to the road running through Jordan. If it comes, Iraqi retaliation is more likely to take the unsubtle form of a bomb, or a bullet.