Jordan’s participation in a possible US-led war, although limited to date, caps a significant change in position by the tiny desert kingdom, from the neutrality it maintained during the 1991 Persian Gulf War to its current role as a key US military ally in the region.
Officials and analysts said that Jordan could become an important part of a US invasion if government officials allow American combat aircraft to fly over the country on the way to Iraq from aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean Sea.
Already, officials in Amman and Washington say, Jordan has agreed to allow the basing of search-and-rescue operations and covert operations inside Iraq by US special forces in Jordan near the Iraqi border.
Yesterday’s acknowledgement by Prime Minister Ali Abu al-Ragheb and by Pentagon officials in Washington came after weeks of rumors that US troops were already in Jordan, speculation fueled by the sight of cargo planes landing and taking off where no airstrip was known to be and tents and signs of construction near As-Safawi in the desert that borders Iraq.
Concerned about stoking the anger of a population dead set against a US-led invasion of Iraq, the Jordanian government has repeatedly ruled out any assistance, or even allowing US troops here.
American officials, sensitive to Amman’s delicate stand against public sentiment, have refrained from discussing details of American military deployments to Jordan for fear of causing further political problems.
Until yesterday, Jordan had acknowledged only receiving six F-16 fighter jets and several Patriot Missile batteries. And yesterday, Abu al-Ragheb said the US forces deployed would be limited to a few hundred men that have ”no relation to any military campaign against Iraq.”
”These antimissile systems are to be manned by US troops with the help of Jordanian armed forces,” Abu al-Ragheb told the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television news channel. ”There will be a presence of American troops in defensive air bases for this purpose only.”
But one former senior Jordanian official said the government has offered logistical help for US forces in covert operations in Western Iraq.
An airstrip reportedly being built in the desert could be used to conduct search-and-rescue operations, or to insert special forces into Iraq for short missions to search for sites of Scud missiles that could be used to launch chemical weapons at Israel. Those operations could be broadened to include tacit approval of the use of airspace as the war intensifies.
The former official put the number of US military personnel at ”around 2,000,” although diplomats in Jordan suggest a smaller number. Pentagon officials, speaking on condition of anonymity yesterday, confirmed the 2,000 figure but declined to provide details on the troops’ location or mission.
The only visible sign of Jordan’s cooperation are the six F-16 fighter jets at Muafaq al-Salti airbase in Azraq, 60 miles east of the capital Amman and 150 miles west of the Iraqi border.
Jordan received the jets, the first of a batch of 16 donated by the United States to strengthen Jordan’s defense, in late January.
Jordan requested the three Patriot batteries last month during a visit by General Tommy Franks, the head of US Central Command, who will lead any operation in Iraq.
Abu al-Ragheb said the missile defense systems would be used to protect Jordan in the event that Israel and Iraq start firing missiles at each other, but he ruled out assisting Washington for any campaign against Iraq.
He said Jordan turned to the United States only when a deal to purchase a Russian S-300 antiballistic missile system fell through when Moscow was unable to deliver the weapons on time. ”We are not participating in any military campaign and will not be a launching pad for any attack against Iraq,” Abu al-Ragheb added.
Jordanian officials, like most Arab leaders throughout the region, cannot afford to appear to support a US-led campaign in which Arab Muslims will die.
Arab leaders are aware of the strong antiwar sentiment among their citizens, many of whom see the United States as an aggressor bent on regional domination.
Analysts, officials, and residents are convinced that a US invasion of Iraq would provoke an anti-American backlash in the region. The Jordanian government has a peace treaty with Israel but an overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian population.
King Abdullah’s military alliance with Washington has already angered the opposition here. Jordan’s main Islamist party, the Islamic Action Front, has vowed unspecified reprisals against American interests if the US forces begin bombing Iraq.
Arab leaders appear to be trying to make sure that reaction is not aimed at them.
That is the popular explanation for a joint statement last week in which all the Arab states except for Kuwait stated they would not offer the United States any assistance in fighting a war in Iraq — even though Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and Dubai have already allowed US troops in their countries.
That contradictory stance has brought criticism from the Arab press. Arab leaders have ”become incapable of doing anything other than colluding with the impending American aggression — or at best keeping quiet about it and issuing statement of rejection warning about its dangers to the region,” lamented the pan-Arab daily Al-Quds al-Arabi in an editorial this week.
Jordan’s late King Hussein refused to support the United States during the 1991 Gulf War and paid a steep price in cuts to its aid from Washington.
King Abdullah, who received $450 million in American economic and military aid last year and has been promised an increase of up to $150 million this year, has decided not to repeat his father’s experience.
”The King wanted to be part of the American campaign, even though this position is contrary to that of the Jordanian people,” said Labib Kamhawi, a political analyst and businessman in Amman.
Jordan’s military has begun training and serving alongside American troops. In October, King Abdullah allowed 1,000 US soldiers to train in the Jordanian desert with other troops from the region.
Jordanian special forces guarded the airfield outside the northern Afghan city Mazar-e-Sharif where the US 10th Mountain Division was based.
The trouble with the Jordan government’s current attempts to keep the presence of US troops a secret is that the rumors are impossible to control.
”Everyone knows about the US troops, even though the government denies it,” said Taher Masri, who was Jordan’s prime minister in 1991. ”As a result people assume their leaders are deceiving them, and start to assume the worst — that we have American combat troops and that the invasion will begin from here.”
Globe correspondent Bryan Bender contributed to this report from Washington.
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 2/25/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.