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In Jordan, Saddam Hussein Is a Superstar

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three Jordanians loitering outside a restaurant named, incongruously, Uncle Sam’s were vying with one another to see who could describe Saddam Hussein, the strongman of Iraq, in the most glowing terms.

“He is like Churchill,” Samer Shitreh, a burly construction worker, said.

“No, he is like your Reagan,” countered Ahmed Abu Maher.

“He is like Rambo,” exclaimed Mahbi Shakri. “For us, he is the only strong Arab leader.”

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To a visitor, who may have expected a traditionally pro-Western country like Jordan to disapprove of Saddam Hussein and his invasion of Kuwait, the words were a surprise. Yet the praise reflected a widely shared point of view in this country that is nervously sandwiched between Iraq and Israel.

Hussein is painted in the West as a dangerous aggressor, but Jordanians from the sun-baked marketplace to the halls of government see him as a hero trying to revitalize a downtrodden Arab world.

This explains in part why Jordan’s King Hussein, who has no family ties to Saddam Hussein, has taken a soft line on the invasion. While the West--and certainly the Bush Administration--views the takeover of Kuwait as an unforgivable grab for oil, the reaction here is quite charitable.

Iraq, many Jordanians say, was right to target Kuwait, even if the invasion itself was wrong. For them, there are emotional and practical reasons to favor Saddam Hussein.

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The reaction has created a break in the ranks of moderate Arab states usually aligned with the United States. President Bush told King Hussein he is “disappointed” in Jordan’s stand, government officials in Amman said.

In passionate terms, Jordanian observers warn of violent popular protest if the United States attacks Iraq. Kamel abu Jabber, a political analyst in Amman, said:

“You cannot isolate the case of Iraq and Kuwait from the rest of the Middle East, where there is a feeling of degradation, economic backwardness and betrayal. Iraq is a product of this atmosphere.”

Jordanian observers present a litany of Arab complaints that give Saddam Hussein a heroic sheen in the eyes of many. He stood up to Iran during eight years of war, they point out, and thus has become something of a knight on a white horse.

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“He is the first modern Arab leader to fight a war and emerge without losing,” said Mahmoud Sherif, editor of the Amman newspaper Al Dustor.

Saddam Hussein’s campaign to raise oil prices is viewed as beneficial to poor Arabs trapped in economic stagnation. His populist proposal that a dollar per barrel of the price increase be given to underdeveloped Arab countries rings a favorable note among the poor.

Unemployment in Jordan is estimated at 10% to 25%. Last year, a sharp currency devaluation and food shortages led to street protests that undermined the rule of King Hussein.

In the economic sense, wealthy Kuwait is regarded as something of a villain. Kuwait is known to have invested freely in Europe and the United States and much less in the underdeveloped Arab world. Kuwaitis have a reputation as big spenders on hedonistic pleasures.

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“There is a feeling that Kuwait and other (Persian) Gulf states could have done more for poor Arab nations,” analyst Abu Jabber said.

In addition, there is widespread frustration at the inability of Western countries, especially the United States, to bring about a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. The feeling is exceptionally strong in Jordan, where the majority of the 3 million people are Palestinian.

In comment after comment here, the strong response of the Bush Administration to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait is contrasted unfavorably with the velvet approach to Israel’s suppression of the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“There is a feeling that Israel will never move out of the occupied West Bank and Gaza,” a Western diplomat said, “and this has caused growing disillusion.”

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There is surprisingly little concern that Jordan could be swallowed up by Iraq in the way Kuwait has been swallowed.

“Why would Iraq want us?” a government official said. “We have no money, just problems.”

In the calculations of King Hussein, at least, the danger from Israel is greater, government officials said. For months, Jordan has been obsessed with rumblings from right-wing politicians in Israel who say the solution to the Palestinian conflict lies in overthrowing King Hussein and converting Jordan into a Palestinian state to which West Bank and Gaza residents would be expelled.

King Hussein, who in his 37 years of rule has been perhaps the most moderate of Arab leaders, has refused to condemn Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. He is said to share Saddam Hussein’s conviction that the oil-rich states of the gulf region have done too little to help countries like his overcome their economic problems.

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He identifies with Iraq as a bastion against outside intrusions into the Arab world: Iraq protects the Arab flank against Iran and Jordan against Israel. Although Kuwait and other rich oil countries have given aid to both countries, they should pay more, government officials in Amman say.

Officials and observers admit to risks for King Hussein in snuggling up to Iraq. If Iraqi influence is converted into a ground threat against Israel, it could invite clashes along Jordan’s long border with the Jewish state. Jordan’s relations with Arab countries that are opposed to Saddam Hussein, notably Egypt, could suffer. Relations with the West could take a historic downturn, especially if Jordan should try to help Iraq break out of an economic blockade.

“If Jordan goes with Iraq, and Iraq is isolated in the world, Jordan has a problem,” a Western diplomat said. “It could share Iraq’s fate. Even if Iraq wins out, Jordan may find itself heavily dependent on an unpredictable neighbor.”

Still, Jordanians seem to prefer backing Iraq.

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“The priorities for us are different,” a former government official said. “We are convinced that Israel is forever hostile, that the United States will never help the Palestinians, and that our economy is in deep trouble.”

For the moment, King Hussein is trying to walk a tightrope. He insists that as a broker between Iraq and Kuwait and other Arab countries, he cannot afford to condemn the invasion, although he says his goal is to bring about the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Yet he has not suggested that the rulers of Kuwait are illegitimate; he too is a monarch, and to make such a statement would be to invite danger.


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