AMMAN – It may come as quite a shock, but thunderous silence does not mean that all’s quiet on the Iraqi western front. “The surprise is not the attack on Baghdad or the advance from Kuwait. The surprise will come from Jordan,” a top Jordanian source who requested anonymity told Asia Times Online. The source says that well over 400 American tanks and more than 7,000 American troops may well be on their way to Baghdad from a remote launching pad in eastern Jordan.
Thousands more troops – at least half of them Special Forces – will arrive over the weekend. So far, the tanks and heavy military equipment have arrived by ship at the southern Jordanian port of Aqaba and have been deployed to the east shrouded in utmost secrecy. Secrecy is paramount, according to the source. The Revolutionary Command Council in Baghdad apparently has no idea that this may be happening, while 5 million Jordanians – including a vast majority of Palestinians – condemn the Anglo-American invasion. Marwan Muasher, Jordan’s Foreign Minister, still insists that no more than 2,000 American and British troops are in the country, and then only for defensive purposes: to operate the three Patriot anti-missile batteries that have been set up to defend the capital Amman and the city of Irbid in northern Jordan.
All of eastern Jordan has been declared a military zone. The Safawi military base is half way between Amman and the Iraqi border. Special Forces commandos have been infiltrating into the western Iraqi desert for days for reconnaissance missions. The source confirms that Hercules C-130 transport planes are using remote airstrips – not the Safawi military base. A special permit is now required to get to the border. But the border is not officially closed: more than 400 African refugees – from Sudan, Somalia, Mali and Chad – have already crossed from Iraq and are now housed in one of two refugee camps operated by the UN High Commission for Refugees. A taxi ride from Baghdad to Amman, usually in a battered 1970s orange-and-white VW Passat, has shot up to more than US\$1,000 from the usual price of less than \$200.
The Hashemite monarchy under Jordanian King Abdullah cannot possibly afford to go public with the explosive developments in eastern Jordan. On the one hand, it depends 100 percent on Saddam Hussein’s regime for its oil: half is free, and the other half bought at a discount price of only \$19 a barrel. Iraq also accounts for 20 percent of Jordan’s exports. On the other hand, Jordan is in no position not to appease the US: it depends on an annual \$500 million in civilian aid plus \$200 million in military aid. Washington has additionally promised Jordan a megadeal to offset its war losses. The official estimate in Amman is that Jordan may lose up to \$1.2 billion this year alone – with no oil coming from Iraq, no exports to Iraq, no UN oil-for-food program and practically no tourists.
The US is pressurizing governments around the world to close Iraqi embassies and expel its diplomats. Australia was the first to oblige. The Iraqi embassy in Jordan may cease to exist this weekend. The official Jordanian position is of not openly supporting the war: but under this extremely uneasy neutrality, there’s de facto total cooperation with the US. The contrast with most Arab nations is extreme, except those like Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, who are in varying degrees pro-US.
The tightrope act is part of a “Jordan first” policy. Officially, this is defined as “a social accord between Jordanian men and women, individuals and groups, the government and the opposition. It emphasizes the supremacy of Jordan’s interests over all other considerations and reformulates the individual’s relationship with the state, equally dedicated to all males and females.”
Under one of the seven hills of Amman, near the ruins of the Nymphaeus – the great Roman amphitheater – lies “Little Iraq”. At its center lies al-Hashemite square, a fabulous microcosm of Baghdad where a mix of Sunnis and Shi’ites, Assyrians and Babylonians, profiteers and the authentic Iraqi resistance drink tea and eat kebabs in restaurants called The Baghdad or The Babylon. People are streaming in from Iraq all the time, carrying their meager belongings or anything that they can sell to secure a few days of food and shelter. Some display a mat on the street, with a stack of letters fresh from Iraq. Passers-by eagerly stop, look, listen and maybe exult with news on paper from a mother, a daughter or a sister left behind.
Al-Hashemite square is the central post office where one learns everything about who’s employing whom in the black market, who is peddling a fake visa or a genuine passport, who is that elusive Arab coyote who will open the gates of a paradise in Stockholm or Copenhagen via Indonesia or Malaysia. And many who are barred from the gates of paradise come back to haunt the shadows of the square of the “Saddamned”.
Since the early 1990s, of a total of 5 million exiled Iraqis (almost 25 percent of the overall population), at least 1.5 million have passed through Amman. More than 300,000 have stayed for good, legally or otherwise. Many had to escape either the very long arms of Saddam’s henchmen or the Jordanian Mukhabarat – the royal security agents in charge of preventing any agitation against a “friendly country”. It’s hard to be a member of the Iraqi opposition in a “friendly country” where Saddam maintains an array of allies in the higher echelons and where the vast majority of the population, from the indigenous Jordanian minority to the Palestinian majority, regard Saddam as a hero of Arabism, a warrior against American imperialism, the only regional leader courageous enough to defy Zionism, or all of the above. Up to this moment, runs the legend, Saddam’s security services know everything that happens in Little Iraq.
Iraqis follow the same route through the desert as their oil – which until the start of the war arrived at Amman in a daily army of tanker trucks. Only a few thousand Iraqis – doctors, engineers, teachers or businessmen – live legally in Jordan, and the new arrivals among them have paid for the official \$200 exit permit delivered by the Baghdad authorities. But most of the other 300,000 barely survive selling contraband cigarettes or toiling in the black market in the Jordan Valley. They are underpaid, they have no rights, they have to face the hostility of Egyptian or Filipino legal immigrants, they live in sordid hotels or even in a hole inside one of the Palestinian refugee camps. If they are Shi’ite, it’s a lot worse in Sunni Jordan: they are no more than shadows. No mosque, no school for the kids, only access to a few majlis – clandestine meeting points, generally a small room rented by a group. On arrival, they get a six-month visa. After that, they need a real job and a local sponsor, otherwise they have to go. Unemployment in Jordan is running higher than 25 percent. Iraqis, in the end, are inevitably accused of being criminals.
Exiled Iraqis may be praying for the end of Saddam’s brutal secular regime, but at the same time they are now caught in a very serious religious conflict. The most eminent scholars at al-Azhar University in Cairo – which is the highest religious authority in Sunni Islam – have declared that a jihad against the “new crusade” targeting Islam is absolutely legitimate. According to al-Azhar’s academy for Islamic research, “If an enemy descends upon Muslim land, then it is the duty of all Muslim men and women to perform jihad.” The scholars are unanimous that 1.3 billion Muslims all over the world “must be ready to defend themselves, their faith and their honor”.
Egyptian and Saudi scholars have agreed these past few days that even if this war does not explicitly pit Christians against Muslims, the only possible reaction to the Anglo-American invasion is jihad: “Hitting American interests is an act of martyrdom.” Jordanians as well as Egyptians agree with the overall Arab perception that George W Bush is surrounded by hardcore ideologues and religious Christian fundamentalists with a viscerally anti-Muslim agenda.
But the call of jihad does not seem to be echoing in the square of the Saddamned. Here, people are not even very impressed with asymmetrical war, swarm tactics, vertical envelopment or how Shock and Awe is unfolding: they just want to be able to survive another day.