Jordan joins anti-Saddam crusade

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The Independent Online


In a sign that King Hussein is joining the enemies of Iraq, US air force fighter aircraft will for the first time start to use bases in Jordan to enforce the no-fly zone over southern Iraq.

The arrival of the 30 fighters and 1,000 air force personnel marks a reversal of policy for Jordan, which for five years has been Iraq's lifeline to the outside world.

The US aircraft are officially in Jordan for two months of war games codenamed "Eager Tiger", but the willingness of King Hussein to allow them to overfly Iraq shows that he has, in effect, joined the Gulf war allies. During the war in 1991 Jordan maintained a benevolent neutrality towards Iraq and incurred the hostility of the US, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The no-fly zone over southern Iraq was imposed by the US in 1992 to protect Iraqis in the south of the country from Iraqi air attack. In addition to the surveillance flights by 18 F16s and 12 F15s supported by four tanker aircraft, the US will train the Jordanian air force, which is to receive 16 F16s in 1997. The US planes will be stationed at two bases, one at Azraq, 40 miles from Amman, and the other in the south of the country.

Relations between Amman and Baghdad have deteriorated sharply since August last year, when Lieutenant-General Hussein Kamel, son-in-law of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, fled to Amman. His public welcome by King Hussein marked the end of Jordan's previously friendly relations with Baghdad, which date back to the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, and the start of a much closer alliance with the US and Israel.

The road across the desert from Baghdad to Amman is Iraq's only land route to the outside world, so the growing hostility of King Hussein is a serious blow. There are tighter restrictions on trade with Iraq, and the Iraqi opposition has been allowed to establish offices in Amman. General Wafiq al-Samerai, former head of Iraqi military intelligence, who defected to the opposition and had been living in Damascus, moved to Jordan in the last week.

There is no doubt that President Saddam is angered by King Hussein's turning against him. When an Iraqi diplomat was expelled recently, Jordanian sources say he was found conducting a surveillance of the house of Abdel-Karim Kabariti, the newly appointed Jordanian prime minister, known for his hostility to the Iraqi government.

Jordan was also humiliated when General Hussein Kamel and his brother, who had been the king's guests, were killed by President Saddam when they returned to Iraq in the mistaken belief that they had been granted a pardon.

Given Iraq's dependence on the road to Amman, it is unlikely that it would start using violence against King Hussein unless it had another outlet. At the same time, the Iraqi regime has had no qualms about using violence in Amman in the past. An Iraqi nuclear expert on his way to Libya was shot dead in the street, allegedly by a gunman working at the Iraqi embassy.

The switch in alliances is not popular among many Jordanians, even if pictures of President Saddam are no longer on display in Amman, as they were in the Gulf war. Jordanian business is also heavily dependent on exports to Iraq. A journalist who last year said 42 Jordanian politicians, businessmen and journalists were on the Iraqi payroll was immediately jailed for three days and put on trial.

Officials, aware of pro-Iraqi public opinion, say that Jordanian pilots will not take part in the flights over Iraq. In addition, Western diplomats said that the US aircraft will not fly directly from Jordan but via Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon said last month that the fighters would remain in Jordan until mid-June, while the US navy carrier group normally deployed in the Gulf is absent.

It is unlikely that the US overflights are doing much good to Iraqis in the south.

The government in Baghdad has drained the marshes - considered a bastion of resistance - of water by digging canals, and has burned towns and villages used by dissidents. All this has been monitored by satellite, but without provoking any international reaction.