Jordan's South Rises, Again

Talk of War in Iraq Lights a Regional Fire

The southern Jordanian town of Ma'an is quieter these days, and except for a few blue, heavily armored troop carriers and a couple of shot-up villas, there are no signs of the ferocious gun battles that lit this city of 70,000 for eight days last November. That fighting, sparked by a failed police manhunt for an Islamist activist named Mohammed Chalabi, a/k/a Abu Sayyaf, quickly escalated into a siege involving thousands of troops, special forces, heavy guns, and helicopters. Six people were killed, hundreds imprisoned. The government closed the city for a week, in what became the military's largest operation since 1970's Black September offensive against the PLO.

Many here think the blitz reflects fears that protests in Ma'an over a U.S. war on Iraq and the worsening situation of the Palestinians will spiral beyond official control. Certainly, the tension in Ma'an mirrors trouble in other Mideast nations trying to contain their own angry populations, especially Egypt, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia—all countries that, like Jordan, host American troops. If an American strike on Baghdad were indeed to cause a new kind of domino effect in the region, the unrest here might prove to have been the first push.

Ma'anis believe they were special candidates—with their penchant for resistance, and for carrying guns—for the forceful message delivered last fall. Jordanian leaders claimed they simply restored order to a lawless southern city, which they painted as a longtime haven for drug and gun smugglers, and Islamic radicals seeking to "impose a state within a state." Smuggling and other crimes have been open secrets in Ma'an for years; Chalabi, a charismatic cleric there, did have a reputation for fiery, anti-establishment sermons, and police say his followers have a history of violence.

Hamed Kreishan and his son survey the damage done to their home in the Jordanian city of Ma'an.
photo: Jehed Nga
Hamed Kreishan and his son survey the damage done to their home in the Jordanian city of Ma'an.

These two views don't complete the story of Ma'an, a town stuck on a seesaw that refuses to balance. On the one side is a place where poverty, unemployment, and political marginalization swirl amid a special sense of history and entitlement. On the other is the nation of Jordan, stuck between regional crisis, a bleak economic outlook, calls for truer democracy, and periodic infiltrations by Islamic terrorist groups.

A report released two weeks ago found that the battles in the city "aggravated the feeling among Ma'anis and other Jordanians that the government relied too heavily on security measures to resolve issues rooted in political, social, and economic conditions." The study, by the Belgium-based International Crisis Group (ICG), was presented directly to King Abdullah, and its authors say the young monarch understands their conclusions. They couldn't have been easy for him to swallow. "Ma'an has become something of a litmus test for Jordan—a test of governmental policies, national institutions, the private sector and civil society," they wrote. "There have been collective failures of all four to date, and time is running short."

The desert road to Ma'an shadows the old Hijaz railway, built in the early 1900s by the last Ottoman caliph, mostly to shuttle pilgrims safely from Damascus to Medina, but also to keep a wary eye on the Arabian peninsula. In later decades, train traffic was replaced by the trucks and buses on the new Desert Highway, moving goods, tourists, and much needed cash through Jordan's southern towns.

Hajj pilgrims no longer stop in Ma'an. The trains today mainly carry minerals, like phosphorous, from the vast mines that scar the nearby desert. Ma'an was hit harder than its neighbors when the Jordanian economy went into recession in the late '80s, a situation made worse by the Gulf War. "Even desperate activities like children selling chewing gum in the street or begging were not available, mainly due to the social stigma," says the ICG report.

In the 1980s, the vital Desert Highway was routed just west of here. It was along this same road that Jordanian police chased Chalabi and his wife, Salwa, on October 29, the day after an American diplomat was gunned down as he strolled that morning to his car outside his west Amman home. The Chalabis had been in the capital that week for what they said was a routine medical checkup. Salwa cannot walk, the result of a bullet wound, friends say, inflicted by her first husband.

The pair traveled about an hour in their gray 1975 Mercedes, till they reached the city of Qatrana, south of Amman. It was here, according to most of the versions of this tale, that they stopped at a police roadblock. The authorities were anxious to talk to Chalabi, a conservative imam outspoken in his anti-government and anti-American views, who police believed had information related to the assassination of the diplomat, 60-year-old Laurence Foley. That the couple ran the roadblock and led police on a 100-kilometer chase to Ma'an could only have hardened their suspicion. Chalabi would later claim he fled because he has been tortured in the past by the Jordanian police. And his supporters say it is beyond belief that the couple, in their almost 30-year-old clunker of car, would try to shake the authorities on a very straight desert highway with hardly any exits.

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