US soldiers 'are using Jordan to enter Iraq'

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The Independent Online

This dusty, impoverished corner of Jordan is making the country's authorities nervous. For one thing, there is the protest against the war in Iraq that the people of Maan plan to hold today – a protest they call the "march of the coffins".

This dusty, impoverished corner of Jordan is making the country's authorities nervous. For one thing, there is the protest against the war in Iraq that the people of Maan plan to hold today – a protest they call the "march of the coffins".

Then there is the military base at Jafr, 50 miles away in the desert, where locals say they have seen hundreds of US soldiers arrive in the last few months, plus trucks carrying tanks and armoured vehicles.

It encapsulates Jordan's dilemma – how to juggle the pressure from its ally, the United States, to help with the war in Iraq, with the fury of a population that is opposed to it.

Salfa abu Tayi – the grand-daughter of Auda abu Tayi, the Bedouin fighter of Lawrence of Arabia fame – says she has seen US soldiers at the base, and tanks covered with canvas. It is an open secret that small teams of US, and possibly British, special forces are operating in western Iraq out of Jordan.

Out at the Jafr military base, Blackhawk helicopters could be seen flying in – confirming one part of her story. It was not possible to confirm any more before Jordanian security arrived to say the road was closed.

The Jordanian government has admitted there are 6,000 US troops here, but says they are only here to protect Jordan from Iraqi missile attack and train Jordanian troops.

But reporters have seen US army Jeeps speeding towards the Iraqi border. If Ms abu Tayi's claim about the tanks is true, it would raise new questions about how heavily involved this front is likely to get.

The possibility that American soldiers are in the base at Jafr is certainly infuriating the people of Maan, which is a problem for the Jordanian authorities. While the Jordanian capital, Amman, is a sleepy, peaceful place, Maan has been the most restive city in the country for decades. In 1984 the late King Hussein had to come here personally to calm protests. Last week, when protests against the war broke out all over Jordan, Maan's were by far the most violent.

Sheikh Adi Mohamid, one of the Bedouin tribal chiefs who control Maan society, says the police arrested him, but let him go after his supporters demanded his release.

Sheikh Mohamid is the head of a committee formed several years ago because of perceived government injustices towards Maan. He says: "The government of Jordan made a shameful decision to participate in this war by allowing these troops to go to Iraq."

He also claims he saw tanks being driven to Jafr on trucks. And he names Jordanian companies contracted to provide facilities for US soldiers at the base. The protest is called "the march of the coffins", he says, because "this is a message that we are ready to die, to condemn the government".

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