Long arm of Iraq reaches dissidents in Jordan

THE assassins who on Monday gunned down an Iraqi nuclear scientist clipped two other targets in Amman. They have reminded the few thousand Iraqis living in Jordan, or those temporarily in Amman seeking visas for asylum in the West, that the arm of the Iraqi authorities is long and merciless towards dissidents and defectors. And they have warned the Jordanian authorities, in a most flagrant breach of Jordan's sovereignty, that Iraqi interests know no territorial bounds.

Some form of retaliation was expected from Iraq after King Hussein's statements over the autumn distancing himself from the regime of Saddam Hussein. In this the King was ahead of his subjects, whose broad support for the Iraqi people is less clearly distinguished from approval of the Iraqi regime. Indeed, the Jordanian press, which throughout the Gulf crisis took a pro-Iraqi line, repeated assertions of the Iraqi embassy in Amman that the assassins of the scientist, Muayad Hassan Naji Al Janabi, were agents of Israel's Mossad. However, the Jordanian security services said they had arrested the two suspected assassins, both Iraqi nationals, as they were about to re-enter Iraq.

The Jordanian political response has been muted. Two days after the assassination there was still no protest to the Iraqis, no hint - in public - of displeasure at an act which is extremely rare in the tranquility and security on which Jordan prides itself.

'I am sure there will be the proper responses at the proper time,' was all the Foreign Minister, Kamel Abu Jaber, could say. 'Jordan does not abide by threats,' he added.

Jordan's traditional position as a pivot between two or three opposing regional blocks is once again under examination. Having distanced himself from the Iraqis, King Hussein infuriated the Gulf Arabs with critical comments last month. Any hope of reconciliation with the Kuwaitis, the Gulf Arabs or Saudi Arabia have been set back considerably.

The consquences are both political and economic. Jordan's one international card is the peace process. But the United States administration is in limbo, and has more pressing domestic concerns to take a more active role.

Meantime, Jordan faces short to medium-term financial pressures. The arrival of up to 300,000 Palestinians evicted from Kuwait last year brought a one-off inflow of capital, fuelling a construction boom. But it has placed even greater strains on the country's infrastructure.