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Rockets Miss U.S. Ships at Port in Jordan

Times Staff Writers

Militants fired at least three homemade rockets from a warehouse hide-out in the Jordanian port of Aqaba on Friday, narrowly missing two U.S. Navy ships and killing a Jordanian soldier.

As Jordanian forces cordoned off the port and scoured the desert and surrounding hills for suspects, a group loyal to Al Qaeda issued an Internet statement claiming responsibility for the attack.

“A group of our holy warriors targeted a gathering of military ships docking in Aqaba port and also in Eilat port” in neighboring Israel, said the statement from the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. “The warriors returned safe to their headquarters.” The authenticity of the statement could not be verified; previously the group has claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks in Egypt.

About 2,000 members of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit were aboard the two ships, the Kearsarge and the Ashland. They are part of the Kearsarge Expeditionary Strike Group, which was sent to the Middle East in March. Navy officials said group members were performing a naval exercise in cooperation with Jordanian troops at the time of the attack. The group left the port soon after the rocket strikes to avoid any further attacks.

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Jordanian sources said four non-Jordanian Arabs, including Iraqis and at least one Egyptian, had rented a commercial warehouse in an isolated industrial zone in Aqaba this week. Local news reports indicated that a Syrian also was involved. The men are suspected of making Katyusha rockets in the warehouse and launching them from the building.

If the two U.S. vessels were the intended target, the rockets veered off their mark. One slammed into a warehouse used to store goods for the Jordanian military, leaving an 8-foot hole in its roof. A soldier who was standing guard was killed, and another Jordanian was wounded. Another rocket landed near a Jordanian hospital.

A third rocket struck near the airport in the city of Eilat, where it landed without exploding. Eilat, a popular beach resort, is about nine miles from Aqaba.

The rockets were “intended to hit the Israeli side and the Jordanian side as well,” Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told reporters.

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“I heard a noise, the car shook, and I kept driving for two more meters,” Israeli cabdriver Meir Farhan told Reuters news agency. “I didn’t realize what it was, [but] when I went out of the car I saw a hole in the ground on the asphalt.”

The Kearsarge, launched in 1992, is an amphibious assault vessel and the strike group’s command ship. The Ashland is a dock landing ship. The strike group also includes a cruiser, a guided-missile destroyer, a fast-attack submarine and aircraft.

Friday’s attack revived memories of the bombing of the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole in October 2000 off the coast of Yemen that killed 17 sailors.

The Cole attack alarmed officials and led to sweeping security changes. Since then the Naval Criminal Investigative Service has hired at least 200 additional special agents, a senior NCIS official at the Pentagon said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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Criminal investigators must now deliver threat assessment reports to ship commanders about two weeks before any port visit, and are present at all ports deemed “high threat” zones, including all of those in the Middle East, the official said. The additional staffing and closer cooperation with allies such as Jordan have helped thwart attacks, he said.

Navy officials declined to discuss the specific protections taken by the ships at Aqaba, or the general security of that port, but it is routinely used to supply the U.S. war effort in neighboring Iraq.

President Bush, vacationing at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, was told about the attack as part of his regular briefings Friday, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said.

“We strongly condemn all attacks like these and are investigating in cooperation with Jordanian officials,” Duffy said.

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In recent years, with the Iraq war raging to the east and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on its western border, Jordan has often seemed like an oasis of stability in a volatile region.

But analysts have long warned that Jordan’s placid surface belies a turbulent reality. The country has been roiled by the current Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000 and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, analysts say. In Jordan, homeland of Iraq insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi and radical Islamist theorists such as Issam Barqawi, commonly known as Abu Mohammed Maqdisi, polls have shown heavy opposition to U.S. foreign policy.

The regional strife has complicated domestic politics for Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who has risked angering his people with his strong alliance with the United States and ties to Israel.

“An attack on Jordanian territory or from Jordanian territory was always a matter of time, despite the fact that Jordanian security agents are omnipotent and have a pervasive presence in society,” said Joost Hiltermann, an analyst with the International Crisis Group who is based in Amman, Jordan’s capital.

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“Sooner or later, somebody will get through as they did today.”

Hasan abu Nimah, a former Jordanian ambassador to the United Nations, said U.S. policy had destabilized the entire region and contributed to a rise in Islamist violence.

“Unfortunately, the so-called war on terror is creating more terror and making everyone unsafe,” Abu Nimah said. “It’s all linked, and there’s a lot of frustration building up. Unless the whole political climate is improved, we must be prepared to see violence spread, and it has been spreading.”

The group that claimed responsibility for Friday’s rocket attacks, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, has posted statements claiming credit for last year’s bombings in the Egyptian resorts of Taba and Nuweiba that killed 34, and the July bombings at Sharm el Sheik, another Egyptian town, in which at least 64 people died.

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The group takes its name from a Palestinian who left the West Bank for Amman and became a mentor to Osama bin Laden. He later died in Pakistan under disputed circumstances.

Aqaba, with its beaches and resort hotels, is one of Jordan’s major tourist magnets, especially popular with scuba divers who want to see the Red Sea reefs. It is also a popular stop for military personnel.

It “is a break for sailors from all countries who are passing through the Red Sea,” said Audeh Quawas, a member of the Jordanian parliament. “They see it as some kind of rest or weekend for the sailors.”

Aqaba also became a free trade zone in 2001 and has emerged as an economic engine. The port bustles with Iraqi business, as Iraqi ports have been eroded by war.

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Stack reported from El Alamein, Egypt, and Hendren from Washington. Times staff writer Warren Vieth in Crawford contributed to this report.


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