The Unquiet Americans


AMMAN, JORDAN—The heavy traffic of recent weeks has fallen to a whisper at Al-Karameh, the stark concrete and barbed-wire border post that separates Jordan from Iraq. The few Chevy Suburban taxi drivers who journey back from Baghdad whistle war tunes to their captive audience: hundreds of journalists stuck near the border, awaiting permission to enter Iraq. The journalists, propelled there by the expectation that the Iraqi government would fall quickly, and by suggestions that the U.S. Army would admit the media soon after war started, set up camp in the last two weeks in the tiny town of Al-Ruwaished, some 40 miles from the border. But as the planned U.S. rout stumbles, the notion that a horde of unaccompanied reporters will report unrestricted on events in Iraq might be troubling to the war’s planners, who seem content with the coverage for now from so-called “embedded” journalists.

So while the journalists wait, they listen to the drivers, and their succession of stories about Tomahawk missile strikes and the lives they end, and of coalition Apaches felled by Iraqi resistance. The border is quiet except for the drivers, and the occasional diplomatic convoy on its way out of Iraq. Strangely, the flood of Iraqi refugees everyone expected has yet to appear; in fact, there are reports that many Iraqis are headed the other way. In this environment of upended expectations the drivers’ tales seem either ominous or apocryphal. Some turn out to be true, though most seem to dissolve a few short hours after they’re spun.

But there is one persistent rumor following these drivers back from the war zone, and for the Jordanian government, it is a dangerous one. So dangerous, in fact, that Prime Minister Ali Abu al-Ragheb held a press conference Sunday that seemed largely intended to contain its incendiary potential.

The drivers say that operations against Iraq are now being launched from Jordan, despite repeated government assurances that attacks will not be allowed from Jordanian soil.

There is little outward evidence that this claim is true, and the Jordanian government has denied it for months, though it does admit American troops are in the country, many to operate and support the Patriot anti-missile batteries. Recent news reports have suggested that U.S. troops sent from Jordan will be opening up the much anticipated northern front. And Iraqi officials have accused the Jordanians of allowing U.S. troops to move into Iraq from Jordan. Whether or not that is the case, there are clear signs of deeper American involvement. For weeks, American transport planes, including the massive C-141 Starlifter and the C-130 Hercules, thundered from a suburban airport over the hills of Amman. And since the beginning of the war, journalists have seen American A-10 Thunderbolt II planes, known as tank busters, departing from an airfield near the border, and heading east toward Iraq. The tank busters don’t seem central to search and rescue operations, which is the other kind of military operation the Jordanian government has permitted from the country.

From Al-Karameh, the border post, the drivers and their trucks journey 45 miles west, to Al-Ruwaished. In a popular eatery on the main drag, they swap stories from the road, and compare their information to the latest war reports on Al-Jazeera. The weekend video is of Iraqi dead in the Basra hospital, and it is unforgiving: a child’s face blown apart and peeled away like a mask, a bearded man flattened into a jumble of body parts and shredded clothing. The images of death as formless yet macabre sculpture are repeated throughout the evening.

For a Jordanian government concerned about the domestic backlash from a war in Iraq, the weekend was full of bad news. Apart from the televised images of Basra’s war dead, and the reports of stiff resistance put up by elements of the Iraqi army, on Sunday the kingdom expelled five Iraqi diplomats, saying they violated “the security agreement” between the two countries. The prime minister swore it was merely a matter between two neighbors. But the move follows a demand by the U.S. to 60 countries worldwide to expel Iraqi diplomats and close their embassies. Jordan was the first Arab country to comply, though officials here deny it was at America’s behest.

And predictably, the protests against the war have started up in earnest, some of them violent. Riot police in Amman beat back Jordanian lawyers attempting to march to the Iraqi embassy in a show of solidarity. Clashes were also reported in Palestinian neighborhoods, as well as in the southern city of Ma’an, a flashpoint for anti-government unrest. There are no signs that the anger is diminishing, and in response, King Abdullah has appeared on Jordanian television appealing for calm.

As the images of Iraqi casualties have brought about a measure of popular sympathy, tales of Iraqi resistance have become a source of pride. On Monday, Jordanians discussed the recent pictures of Iraqi farmers and their antique guns celebrating around a downed American helicopter. Whether or not the farmers did anything to bring the Apache down seems beside the point. The image would have been more powerful only if the thing had been shot out of the sky by a Palestinian teenager with a slingshot.

A’eda Odeh hasn’t heard about the American helicopter. Over coffee in her brother’s home in the city of Zarqa, 15 minutes northeast of Amman, she said that the idea that Jordan was working closely with the U.S. made her “very angry.”

“I don’t like Saddam Hussein at all,” said Odeh, whose husband is a Jordanian policeman. “But because his soldiers are resisting the Americans, I’ve started to like him.” She says she takes no pleasure from the reports of killed and captured American soldiers, and says the Iraqis should be left in peace. “They need to start a war to get of rid of Saddam?” she asks. “This is the most powerful country in the world we’re talking about. I think they could have found another way.” She says it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Bush administration has bigger plans than liberating Iraqis.

The rumors from the Iraqi border have reached the streets of Amman. A falafel vendor asked whether the stories about the U.S. troops are true; and if they’re true, what can the government be thinking? “I know Jordan needs the money, but these are fellow Arabs,” he says, shaking his head in disgust. “I think, in the long run, this collaboration will end up costing us more than we can afford.”

Back in the Zarqa living room, A’eda’s brother tells her the story of the Iraqi farmers, and she listens intently, her face expressionless, till she can no longer contain her glee. “I don’t favor war,” she says, and takes a last sip of her tea. “But bravo to those farmers.”

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