Jordan's king takes on militant Palestinians

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HE IS glossy, affable, short - the unkind would say squat - and has the sort of heavy facial features that hint at a prize fighter. And now, eight monthsafter assuming the throne of the Hashemite kingdom, King Abdullah II of Jordan has thrown his first big punch.

HE IS glossy, affable, short - the unkind would say squat - and has the sort of heavy facial features that hint at a prize fighter. And now, eight monthsafter assuming the throne of the Hashemite kingdom, King Abdullah II of Jordan has thrown his first big punch.

The target of the youthfulking's uppercut is Hamas, the militant Islamic group which has long been active among Jordan's Palestinian population, andwhich is now reeling after the detention of 21 members. The 37- year-old king, who took over the throne after the death from cancer of his father,King Hussein, spelt out his strategy in a conversation with a small group of correspondents yesterday, before he set off for a trip to the United Stateswhere he will met President Bill Clinton next week.

"Jordan has made itself clear that Hamas offices will be shut down in Jordan and that is what will happen," he said over brunch in palace offices inAmman. The Sandhurst- educated king, who formerly commanded the Jordanian army's special operations, appears to enjoy using the logic of amilitary man: "A soldier has to pick his battles, rather than let other people choose them for him." As a result, two prominent Hamas leaders are nowbehind bars - Khalid Mashaal, head of its "politburo", and Ibrahim Ghosheh, a senior publicity official.

A fortnight ago, the men, both Jordanian citizens, were taken into custody as they returned from a trip to Iran. Jordanian officials said they had beengathering security- related information on Jordan, training militant cadres and stockpiling caches of arms. The Hamas men denied it.

The arrests followed a swoop in late August when police closed down Hamas offices and detained 15 staff. Since then, public figures have beenwarned against advocating pro-Hamas views, and a Muslim cleric who made pro-Hamas sermons was arrested and held for six days.

The crackdown has fuelled speculation that the new king is not so much flexing his own muscles as acting at the behest of Israel or the US, both ofwhom relish the spectacle of militant Palestinians being sent packing from Amman (almost certainly to Syria). Whether that is fair, the purgesuggests the king - who has openly criticised the US enemy- in-chief, Iran - leans more unambiguously towards Washington than his pragmaticfather.

Certainly he has some cause to please the Americans, who have been increasing their already substantial aid to Jordan, and are next year expected topay out $125m (£78m) in military aid alone. But the crackdown on Hamas also benefits Yasser Arafat, who views the group as a thorn in theside which threatens to disrupt the precarious Middle East peace process. The Palestinian leader has been privately pressuring the Jordanians to act.

The king's tactics entail significant risks. Although Hamas does not enjoy strong public support in Jordan, surveys suggest that many share itsopposition to a peace treaty with Israel. There is also a chance that the jailed Hamas leaders will seize on the possibility of a trial to publicise theircause.

The issue is part of a larger bid by Jordan's leader to breathe air into the cinders of the Oslo peace process. "Now there is a great sense of euphoria inthe Middle East," he said yesterday. "My greatest fear is what happens if nothing takes place over the next six months." This approach is unlikely todo much to endear the king to much of his country, burdened as it is by high unemployment, sparse natural resources, and a hefty foreign debt. But itwill strengthen his claim on his father's other title - that of "plucky little king".

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