Jordan's Secret Deal on Iraq
Would allow U.S. forces to use country to defend Israel
By Matthew McAllester
MIDDLE EAST CORRESPONDENT
NEWSDAY - September 19, 2002
Amman, Jordan - Despite deep opposition in the Arab world to U.S. plans for a war on Iraq, Jordan and the United States are secretly negotiating a deal to let U.S. forces use this country to defend Israel from Iraqi missiles, according to Western diplomats and Jordanian officials.
To help stabilize this strategically crucial kingdom against internal rebellion in the event of war, the United States will guarantee the replacement of cheap oil supplies that Jordan now gets from Iraq, the sources said.
With hundreds of Iraqi agents believed to be in this country, Jordan faces a particular threat of terrorism by Iraq's wide intelligence network, intelligence officials in the region and Western diplomats said. Western intelligence agencies are cooperating with those in the Middle East in preparations to counter such a threat, they said.
Many analysts of the Arab world say a U.S. attack on Iraq would risk broad upheaval against pro-Western governments such as Jordan's. And this politically fragile kingdom has not publicly agreed to cooperate with such an attack because of the pro-Iraq, anti-American passions among many of its citizens.
But privately, the government of King Abdullah II has decided to work with Washington because it sees the U.S. as the eventual winner in a fight, officials said. In the 1991 Gulf War between Iraq and a U.S.-led coalition, Jordan suffered diplomatic vilification for siding with Baghdad. Jordan's rulers now feel that it would be disastrous for the country to side with an almost inevitable loser in a new war, the officials said.
Jordan and the United States have been working together to avoid creating conditions that could cause a popular uprising here or an attempt to topple Abdullah, officials said. "The U.S. will not make requests of Jordan that it knows Jordan [politically] cannot carry out," said a Western diplomat. "The real concern is if something happens between Iraq and Israel and the havoc that Iraq could cause" in Jordan.
As part of a delicate agreement still being worked out, U.S. forces would operate covertly from Jordan's eastern desert to attack mobile missile batteries in western Iraq that Saddam Hussein could launch on Israel, as he did in 1991. A recent study by London's International Institute of Strategic Studies estimated that Iraq has only a dozen Scud missiles and none with the equipment to disperse chemical or biological weapons with much efficacy.
In 1991 Iraq's Scuds did little damage and Israel did not retaliate. But the current Israeli government has vowed to attack Iraq if Israel is hit in any way during a war.
Any Israeli involvement in the war could shake the region. In Jordan, as in other Arab lands, if people felt that their government was acting alongside Israel against fellow Arabs in Iraq, they could protest violently, diplomats and Jordanian officials said.
Crucial to keeping the fragile balance in Jordan during a war would be finding an alternative to the Iraqi oil that Jordan buys at about $50 million per month below world prices. Cut off from those supplies by war, Jordan would be economically crippled by the sudden expense of buying from elsewhere, and could suffer an upheaval.
"The U.S. is sensitive to Jordan's vulnerability on the oil issue," said a Western diplomat. "They are not going to let a country they care so much about fall apart over something so manageable as oil."
Privately, Jordanian officials said the United States has guaranteed affordable oil to Jordan. Information Minister Mohammed al-Adwan declined to discuss specifics, saying simply, "The United States has been helping us on many things."
If oil is seen as manageable, the wild card that most worries intelligence agencies, officials and diplomats in the region is the possibility that Iraqi agents will use the tactics of al-Qaida. Last week, Taha Yassin Ramadan, an Iraqi vice president, appeared to threaten as much, speaking in Jordan's capital.
"It is the right of all the Arab people, wherever they are, to fight against the aggression through their representatives and on their soil ... by all means," he told reporters. "We call on all Arab and good people to confront the interests of the aggressors, their materials and humans wherever they are."
While intelligence agencies in the region are laboring to dismantle al-Qaida, they also are spending more time monitoring Iraqi agents. "There is a long history of Iraqi activity here, and we believe their agents are in a position to cause problems," said a Western diplomat.
According to intelligence and diplomatic sources in the region, numerous spies are among the 100,000 Iraqis living in Jordan. Many came in the 1980s, when the Iran-Iraq war forced Iraq to use Jordan and its port of Aqaba as its main supply route.
Iraqi dissidents and foreign scholars have documented Iraq's mukhabarat, or secret service, as one of the world's most ruthless and efficient. Iraq's agents in Jordan and other countries are highly trained and capable of spreading havoc with bombings, assassinations or even the chemical and biological weapons that Iraq is believed to possess, intelligence sources and diplomats said. "We always feel under pressure but the Iraq situation is doubling it," said one regional intelligence official. "With Saddam personally targeted he will not be restricted from doing anything."
A report circulated among regional intelligence officials this week noted Iraq's attempts "to activate the mukhabarat offices abroad," the intelligence official said.
Officials in the region also worry that militants in Jordan unconnected to Iraq or to al-Qaida could simply follow al-Qaida's example and initiate terrorist attacks during a war. "A certain amount of popular unrest can be controlled," said another Western diplomat, "but more worrying is what the unorganized or semi-organized reaction would be along the lines of a copycat of al-Qaida."
If the United States does attack Iraq, "the reaction will be more like al-Qaida's actions," said Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian businessman with good relations with some influential Iraqis. "Small groups taking action against American interests. America will be inviting a new era of terrorism. Basically American targets, maybe [Jordanian] regime targets. We have strong reasons to believe that the outcome of such an attack will invite the formation of underground militant groups. ... There might [already] be some, dormant ones."
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