AMMAN, Jordan -- Although Jordan is holding to its uneasy neutrality in the gulf war, its diplomatic skirmishing with the United States continued yesterday over Jordanian use of Iraqi oil.
Aoun Khasawneh, legal adviser to King Hussein, sharply criticized the U.S. assertion that Jordan's oil imports violate United Nations economic sanctions against Iraq.
Iraq has been Jordan's only source of oil since October, when Saudi Arabia shut off its supply in anger over Jordan's neutrality. Because of that, Mr. Khasawneh said, the United Nations agreed informally that Jordan could continue getting oil from Iraq without violating the spirit of the sanctions.
"From the very beginning it has never been a secret that we were using this oil," Mr. Khasawneh said. "There is nothing in the charter of the U.N. to require a state to undergo hari-kari to carry out an order against another state."
The tiff over oil blossomed from an earlier exchange over the deaths of four Jordanian oil-truck drivers, who apparently were killed in allied air raids on the highway leading from Baghdad to Jordan.
Jordan's foreign minister, Taher Al Masri, called in the U.S. ambassador last Wednesday to condemn the attacks as an "outrageous aggression on innocent Jordanian civilians and their property."
He also implied that the attacks were an attempt to make Jordan stop importing Iraqi oil, and said, "If this was intended to make us change our position, it will not do so. We will keep to our principles."
He also said that Jordan reserved the right "to take further actions at all levels" if the attacks continued.
U.S. officials responded by saying that the attacks were not aimed at civilians, but at knocking out scud missiles, which reportedly had been hidden along the highway.
But in referring to the oil trucks, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler accused Jordan of violating U.N. sanctions by continuing to haul oil out of Iraq.
That prompted Mr. Khasawneh's remarks yesterday. He said that Jordan has adhered to all other economic sanctions against Iraq, but received informal permission Oct. 17 to receive the oil, based on a U.N. report.
The report concluded that Jordan's economy wouldn't be able to handle the burden of obtaining more expensive oil from other suppliers, he said.
The Iraqi oil has come virtually free of charge because Jordan credits the $16-a-barrel cost against Iraq's $900 million debt. Iraq ran up the debt during its costly eight-year war with Iran, which ended in 1988.
Jordanian officials see the oil as a windfall because it never expected the debt to be repaid. So, Mr. Khasawneh said, it isn't as if Iraq is making cash from the arrangement.
But even with Iraqi shipments, Jordan is barely getting enough oil to keep running, and former suppliers such as Saudi Arabia show no sign of re-opening pipelines.
Economists here estimate that only about a quarter of the oil that used to arrive from Iraq is getting down the highway, and Jordan's oil reserves have dwindled to less than a month's supply.
In response, the government announced Thursday that it will begin a conservation program next week limiting the use of private vehicles to every other day.