NEWS ANALYSIS : Jordan Walks a Tightrope on the Edge of the Perilous Gulf Whirlpool : Middle East: Thus far middle of the road, the kingdom may be forced to take a stand on Iraq.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A prominent politician in Amman advertised his dissent from his government's backing for Iraq by reprinting and handing to friends an editorial from a newspaper in Egypt that was critical of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

He thought nothing of the gesture--after all, Jordan has come to view itself as a nascent democracy--until a colleague came to him with a warning: "The Iraqi Embassy is wondering why you are spreading anti-Iraqi literature."

Reflecting on the exchange, the politician mused: "I wonder what we're getting ourselves into."

More and more, Jordan is pondering with alarm its precarious location on the edge of the Persian Gulf whirlpool. Despite a professed middle position of seeking only a peaceful solution to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait--an article of faith expressed by almost everyone from King Hussein to the humblest vegetable vendor--the feeling is growing that the desert kingdom is being pulled toward taking a more definitive stand.

On one side, popular opinion weighs heavily in favor of Iraq. On the other, the nearly unanimous world stand against the invasion makes Jordan, which has made statements supportive of Iraq, appear to be a renegade.

King Hussein, doggedly pursuing a balancing act, has fashioned a role for himself, peacemaker, that is meant to cover all demands. No matter that neither Iraq nor anyone else appears to be listening to him.

"It's an honest role," insisted Taher Masri, a member of the Jordanian Parliament. "We are a weak country and are always subject to the winds blowing around us."

Other observers are less certain. They note that King Hussein's effort last month to persuade Iraq of the need to leave Kuwait, as a prelude to any settlement, was sharply rebuffed in Baghdad. To cling to the role of mediator is pure make-believe, they argue.

"We have to declare ourselves sometime," said a Jordanian senator who was briefed on the monarch's peace mission. "I mean, why keep making these trips here and there? If (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein wants to pull out of Kuwait, he won't need the king as a cover."

Saudi Arabia, a rich neighbor of Jordan's and a leading player in the broad anti-Iraq alliance, is not buying Jordan's approach at all. On Wednesday, Saudi officials published an open letter to King Hussein deploring what they call Jordan's defense of "horrifying acts of rape and destruction" in Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia recently expelled Jordanian diplomats on charges of spying for Iraq and cut off supplies of oil to Jordan. A Palestinian-led conference in favor of Iraq that took place in Amman especially angered the Saudis. At several sessions, charges were made that the rulers of Saudi Arabia are traitors.

Despite the pressures, declaring itself on the gulf crisis is one action that the Jordanian government seems to want to avoid. The stakes are too high for a country where passions are strong, a country surrounded by hostile neighbors who might want to work out their aggressions on Jordan's parched terrain.

Israel has accused Jordan of putting its air force at Iraq's command. The United States, in writing scenarios for attacks on Iraq, has hinted that it might want to use Jordanian territory as a way station for troop movements. Iraq has not made any public pronouncements on the uses it has in mind for Jordan. However, before the Kuwaiti crisis, Baghdad flew reconnaissance missions over Jordanian territory, the better to see what Israel was up to.

The few visible Jordanian critics of Iraq usually ask for their names to be kept private so as not to offend their repressive neighbor.

"So what if the Fiji Islands takes a strong stand on Iraq?" Masri asked. "They will never see one of these armies on their border."

Jordan's predicament is shared to varying degrees in national capitals throughout the world. Country after country is being asked to define its role in the post-Cold War world in terms of its response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

The United States is again trying on its uniform as global police officer. Britain is dusting off its imperial robes. One affront to France--Iraqi troops forced their way into the French diplomatic compound in Kuwait--transformed Paris from a relatively passive onlooker to an active participant, with troops on the ground.

A number of other countries, from Bangladesh to Argentina, have sent troops or ships to the Persian Gulf. Are West Germany and Japan about to join in?

In the Arab world, the shake-up has been dramatic. Saudi Arabia has been forced to expose its closet alliance with Washington. Egypt, only recently readmitted to the Arab fold after making peace with Israel 10 years ago, is striding, with American backing, toward regional superpower status.

And Jordan? Well, this is a country that has thrived on ambiguity and appears unwilling to change.

A plaque on a castle in Azraq, northeast of Amman, gives a brief account of the history of the black stone structure: built by the Romans, rebuilt by the Arabs and used by British adventurer and writer T. E. Lawrence. Jordan is like that castle. Its history is ancient and filled with conflict. It is Arab to the core, yet it is strongly colored by its ties to the West.

As with Kuwait, the boundaries of Jordan were drawn by British colonialists. About half of Jordan's people are Jordanians of Bedouin descent and half are Palestinians resentful of having lost a homeland across the Jordan River.

King Hussein, of desert ancestry, was educated in Britain, but his pronouncements in English sometimes take on the cadences of American pop culture. His stock phrase at the moment is "Give peace a chance."

The blend of cultures is matched by a mix of dependent relations. Jordan needs oil and money from its rich Arab neighbors. It has long sought aid and diplomatic support from the West. In recent months, the monarch nudged closer to Iraq as a military balance to Israel.

To cement the varied relationships, King Hussein put on a variety of masks. To Arab nationalists and militant Palestinians, he was the dashing leader of a state in a perpetual face-off with Israel. To Muslim fundamentalists, he is heir to the bloodline of Mohammed. To the West, he is the voice of reason, always on the verge of entering into peace talks with Israel.

Now, Hussein is being asked to choose. Observers here say he will never abandon Iraq. "He simply will not stand up and say Iraq is wrong," said Kamel abu Jaber, a political scientist.

Partly, the king is following public opinion and partly he is acting from conviction. "He likes Saddam Hussein," said Masri, the Parliament member.

In any case, the best bet for many is that Jordan somehow stay out of the fray. "We are exposed to everyone and can help no one," Masri said. "We want to be left alone."

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