War in Iraq brings Jordan financial, political worries


AMMAN, Jordan - The economic sanctions imposed on Iraq before the fall of Saddam Hussein may have been the best of times for neighboring Jordan. Truckloads of goods, from baby food to building materials, legal and illegal, streamed across the barren border. In return, Jordan reaped the benefits of cheap Iraqi oil.

The postwar scene looks drastically different. Trucks entering Iraq are still filled with merchandise, but with trade restrictions lifted, the products are by and large American and European. And Jordan's oil now comes from other Gulf states, at much higher prices.

Adding to the problems, businessmen here say, exporters are bypassing Jordan's Red Sea Port in Aqaba, because of high tariffs at the Suez Canal, and routing their shipments through Jordan's other neighbor, Israel, and its Mediterranean port in Haifa.

Sunday's election in Iraq could give Jordan another blow.

While the world focuses on what is hoped will be new democracy in the midst of regimes and kingdoms, Jordanian leaders are nervously looking past Iraq and to Iran, which they fear is trying to influence the election and expand its brand of fundamentalist Islam.

King Abdullah II of Jordan expressed concern last month when he accused Iran of flooding Iraq with 1 million extra voters to skew the election. Iraq's majority Shiite Muslim population is expected to make political gains over the minority Sunni Muslims, who controlled the country under Hussein.

Abdullah warned of an Iranian-backed Shiite crescent that would challenge the region's more prevalent Sunni states and threaten Saudi Arabia, Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait and Lebanon.

"Iraq has been the historic, strategic backbone of Jordan," said Abdellah Aburoman, a newspaper columnist and government critic who agrees that Iranian influence on Iraq poses a serious threat. "Our relationship with Iraq is not by chance; it is our fate. If we lose this relationship, it will be bitter. We will be isolated, and this is what the king fears."

Jordan is a country with few natural resources forced to contend with a raging Palestinian conflict next door in Israel, complicated by the country's high number of Palestinian residents and refugees, and a prolonged war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s followed by successive wars against Iraq by America.

Abdullah has had to maintain order and remain friends with countries that are at war with one another. His citizens have long had connections with Iraqis, strengthened through ethnic and economic ties, and business deals flourished.

Delicate balance

Now, amid the latest war, the delicate balance that Jordan worked so hard to keep is threatening to unravel.

"If the Shiites control Iraq, there will not be a stable government," said Aburoman, the columnist. "There will be less freedom and more oppression, and the insurgency will become more pronounced. What the Iranian leaders failed to do, the Americans succeeded. They drove out Saddam and helped expand the Iranian revolution. The Shiites in Iraq will not be able to resist the wave from Iran."

Labib Kamhawi - president of Cessco, an oil and gas supply company that helps build pipelines and wells, and has lost a lot of income since the war's end - played down Iran's influence and said that American armed forces would not let Iran assert control.

But he said that does not make Jordan's plight any easier. Business relationships have to be rethought and renegotiated, with strong competition coming from countries around the world eager to capitalize on a new market in which Jordan once enjoyed almost exclusive rights.

The upside, Kamhawi said, is the influx of Iraqis to Jordan after the war. Though the Jordanian government maintains that there are no more than 200,000 Iraqis living here, analysts say the number is at least twice as high.

"They are pouring a lot of money into Jordan by buying real estate and starting companies," Kamhawi said. "They are doing some serious investing. They aren't just the poor Iraqis; we are getting the rich ones as well. The war certainly hurt many segments of our society and economy, but the strain is being somewhat offset by the new immigrants. It is almost compensating us for the losses stemming from the lifting of sanctions on Iraq."

The topic for Jordan is a sensitive one. Officials here do not want to risk offending their Iraqi neighbors - and whoever might lead them - and say publicly they are encouraged by the election and plan to work with the new government, even one dominated by Shiites.

Jordan leaders would prefer secular Shiites to control Iraq, or at the very least a mix that could stave off influence from Iran. Abdullah has repeatedly encouraged Iraqis living in Iraq and elsewhere, including Jordan, to register and to vote to help ensure that the new Iraqi government is representative.

But the turnout at Jordanian registration booths has been low. Only 16,795 Iraqis living in Jordan signed up. The highest expatriate turnout was in Iran, where 53,000 people are registered, an estimated 25 percent of the eligible voters there.

The king's warning to Iran, government spokesman Asma Khader said in an interview, was designed to ward off threats.

"It was a clear message to the regimes in the region about the risk of ignoring some groups in Iraq," she said.

Fears of violence

Jordan has other fears as well. Its leaders are worried that the violence in Iraq could spread to Jordan. One of the top militants leading the insurgency is Jordanian, and authorities here have broken up several militant plots.

Police in Amman and throughout Jordan are on high alert, with extra checkpoints in the border areas and tight security around schools that are being used to register Iraqi voters in Jordan. "We feel that Jordan is well prepared to combat any trouble," Khader said.

Of equal concern is that Iraq could break apart into three groups - the Kurds in the north, the Sunnis in the center and the Shiites in the south. "That would be very risky," Khader said. "It would not be acceptable. It's important to keep Iraq together."

Jordan officials have not publicly released statistics that show any drop in production or trade as a result of the war in Iraq. And business executives such as Kamhawi and former intelligence officers such as Ali Shukri, a former army general who ran the Iran-Iraq desk, contend that the government is deliberately underestimating the country's Iraqi population to avoid alarming the public over the influx. Jordan's population is 5.6 million.

The complaints about decreased business dealings with postwar Iraq are anecdotal but follow a common thread: A breakup of Iraq or an Iraq under Shiite rule poses the greatest threat to Jordan.

"Our position is that we need Iraq to calm down," Shukri said. "It's not in anybody's interest to have a war on your border." But the analyst, who left the government in 1998, said he doubts that either the Iraqis or the Americans would allow Iran to control the new leadership.

"They might have good relations with Iran, but I don't see the Iraqis allowing anyone else to run their country," Shukri said. "And does Iran want to be seen interfering in internal Iraqi affairs while Americans are in control of the ground?"

The bigger danger to Jordan is if the U.S. military leaves, he said: "If America pulls out, there is no power behind the government."

The election in Iraq is also causing concern among neighboring governments that are hardly democratic themselves, such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran. Jordan is ruled by a monarchy but has a freely elected lower house of parliament that, despite majority support for the king in the upper house, has been able to block the government on some issues.

"Some of that anxiety is the fear that the election will be a success," a senior Western diplomat said in an interview in Amman this week.

The diplomat discounted fears of an Iranian-influenced government taking hold in Iraq, saying that the Iraqi religious parties are split themselves and that although Jordan's concerns are valid, they are overstated. Iraqi Shiite leaders have said they want a secular government, not the religious rule that grips Iran.

"You can't disregard the Iranian threat, and they indeed are trying to export their influence," the diplomat said. "We have warned them about their behavior. But we don't deem credible the excessive rhetoric in some corners that Iran will be a fifth column in Iraq.

"It's OK for [Jordan] to have anxiety," he said. "But I don't think that their worst fears are going to be realized. What is needed is balance. The Shiites are coming into their rightful political inheritance. They are emerging from tyranny. They do not need to become a theocracy on the back of Iran to enjoy the fruits of change."

The diplomat has been involved in many conversations on the topic: "The Jordanians tell me, 'We hope you are right, but we fear you are not.' I tell them that their analysis lacks depth."

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