'Plucky Little King' who earned the crown of peace in the Middle East

TO THE end, he was a king. Hussein ibn Talal had spoken of his own mortality many times, and his lastjourney yesterday - 6,000 miles from an American deathbed to the land he ruled for 46 years - becamehim. Soldiers prefer to die at home.

TO THE end, he was a king. Hussein ibn Talal had spoken of his own mortality many times, and his lastjourney yesterday - 6,000 miles from an American deathbed to the land he ruled for 46 years - becamehim. Soldiers prefer to die at home.

A military man, a field commander, Sandhurst graduate. King Hussein had the disconcerting habit when Ifirst met him of calling me "Sir" - he used it with everyone, a gesture of respect that humbled the visitor(and was intended to).

That's why we called him the Plucky Little King, the PLK. Honour was the word that came to mind. Hewas an honourable man. He believed that if he trusted enough in another person, his good faith would bereturned; he was cruelly rewarded.

Many of those who betrayed his hopes will come to his funeral. The Gulf rulers, for example, who neverunderstood why he could not condemn Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990; the Israelis, whoshowed their respect for their peace treaty with King Hussein by sending a murder squad to Amman lastyear; Yasser Arafat, who allowed his Palestinian guerrillas to attempt a coup d'etat in 1970 and lied to himabout his secret deal with Israel in 1994; and the American president, who repeatedly promised the King ajust peace in the Middle East - and then proved too cowardly to confront the Israelis.

And we shall have to suffer all the glitzy adoration that the guilty show for dead kings. We've alreadyheard President Bill Clinton's soliloquy - "a wonderful human being ... a champion of peace" - and weknow what Arafat will say because he's said it before: that King Hussein has been a Saladin, the warriorknight who drove the Crusaders from Palestine.

In truth, it was the Israelis who drove the Hashemites from Palestine, but Clinton's words - despite thegutless nature of the man who uttered them - somehow got it right. What king would ever turn up at hisown state security jail to drive his most vociferous political prisoner home?

Leith Shubailath had infuriated the monarch - he was a man easily riled - and was slapped into clink forasking why the queen wept at Yitzhak Rabin's funeral.

When the King arrived at the prison, Shubailath delayed him 10 minutes while he said goodbye to hisfellow inmates. Hussein waited patiently for him. Would Saddam (who prefers to string his prisoners up)have done that? Would King Fahd? Would President Mubarak? Would Benjamin Netanyahu? Perhaps itis this which distinguished the King: among the monsters of the Middle East, he appeared such areasonable man.

He was also, in an odd way, a careless man. His folly at joining Egypt's war against Israel in 1967 wascompounded in 1990 by his support for Saddam (who also betrayed the king - please God HE'S not atthe funeral).

Hussein demonstrated an equal but more personal recklessness - hubris, perhaps? - when he rode in thecold, rain-lashed streets of Amman last week in an open-top car. After his first brush with cancer, I askedthe King if he had been cured of his illness. "The doctors gave me an excellent bill of health," he replied -how painful those words sound now - and then I noticed the packet of cigarettes lying on the table in frontof him. "Ah, yes," he said. "These are the only things I haven't yet given up." And he flicked his finger atthe packet in disdain.

If his desire for peace showed vision, he lacked foresight. With their usual obsequiousness, Western aswell as Arab leaders have been praising the King for returning to Jordan last week to fire his brotherHassan and create his eldest son crown prince.

"Setting his affairs in order" was what they called it. But even if we ignore the lack of any democraticprocess for the succession, it was a bit late in the day to start switching your crown princes around. Theman who had cemented relationships with scores of kings and generals and presidents - albeit not alwaysimpressive relationships - was suddenly replaced by a man who knew none of them. No wonderJordanians fear the future.

For Prince Abdullah is going to have a spot of bother with the kings and presidents at that funeral. MrClinton, for example, will be keen to get the new monarch to set the Iraqi opposition up with hearth andhome in Amman, perhaps even to risk a little military foray into Iraq to set up a "safe haven" forSaddam's enemies.

The Israelis would be smiling along with that idea. At which point Saddam would become a threat.

But refuse the United States president - which is what Jordanians would want him to do - and Abdullahmay start his reign with an unsympathetic if not downright hostile Washington at his back. ThreatenSaddam and the Americans will love him. Ignore Washington and his people will love him; it's the sameold trap his father walked into in 1990.

But what Abdullah cannot be is his father. If relations are breaking down between Egypt and Sudan, callKing Hussein. If there's civil war in Lebanon, ask King Hussein's advice. When Arafat and Netanyahucannot abide each other at the Wye Plantation, drag King Hussein from his sick bed to sort them out -much good did it do the monarch, who was betrayed yet again.

But it symbolised what the PLK was so good at: defusing the Middle East explosion. He was, in a veryreal sense, the region's political Bomb Disposal Officer, the one man who could be relied on to calmnerves, order bystanders to open their windows and then gently, firmly, withdraw the detonator of war.

That's why Arabs and Israelis fear for the future. What are they going to do now that there is no one todefuse the bombs?

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