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Jordan's ruler distances himself from Saddam

THE MEETINGS King Hussein of Jordan held with Iraqi opposition figures in London last week indicate a distancing from Iraq's President, Saddam Hussein.

The most extraordinary meeting was with Ahmed Chalabi, a member of the Iraqi National Congress. For Mr Chalabi was convicted in absentia by a Jordanian court to 22 years jail for absconding with the funds of the Petra bank. The bank had earlier collapsed in both Lebanon and Switzerland. On a domestic level, King Hussein's reconciliation with Mr Chalabi stems from his traditional largesse as a monarch seeking to let bygones be bygones - albeit Mr Chalabi is not a Jordanian citizen.

On a regional level, the meetings are part of a pattern of King Hussein's, distancing himself from the policies of President Saddam. The King has always denied he supported the Iraqis. But his failure to condemn unreservedly the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait caused a rift with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arabs, and severe strains with Western powers such as the United States and Britain.

Signs of some slight warming with the Saudis came during King Hussein's hospitalisation in the US for the removal of his kidney. King Fahd sent a message of goodwill, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, visited him in hospital. An improvement of relations with Saudi Arabia could lead to a resumption of the oil supplies and economic assistance on which Jordan, for so many years, relied.

In London, King Hussein visited the foundation of the Iraqi Shia spiritual leader, the late Grand Ayatollah Abulqassem al-Khoei. When the Ayatollah died in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf in August, King Hussein was prevented by President Saddam from sending an envoy to offer his condolences.

Other signs of the King's more critical attitude towards President Saddam emerged in the US. King Hussein made remarks about his failure to understand why some leaders clung to power despite the suffering this caused to their people.

However, parliament, the press, and public opinion in Jordan remain greatly supportive of Iraq and President Saddam's leadership. Furthermore, any change in economic relations between Jordan and Iraq is due more to Iraqi practices than Jordanian policies. Indeed, Jordan's decline as an important entrepot for goods going to Iraq has less to do with Jordanian compliance with UN sanctions than with Iraq's execution of 42 merchants accused of profiteering. This has thrown the entire trading system into confusion, with Iraqi importers no longer sure of the rules of the game.