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Friendship between Iraqi, Jordanian defied hostility between nations

BAGHDAD, Iraq—People in the neighborhood knew them as simply "the Iraqi and the Jordanian."

Despite an age gap and the hostility that separates many of their countrymen, Mohamed Juma, 23, and Hassan Hussein, 42, were as close as brothers until an ill-timed shopping trip put their Chevy Caprice in front of the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad just as a powerful car bomb exploded Thursday morning.

The blast ripped through the Caprice, trapping the men and two other friends under twisted metal and jagged glass. Hussein, from Jordan, died instantly along with the two other passengers. Juma, an Iraqi, clawed his way out of the car and collapsed underneath the dusty stampede running from the area. On Saturday, badly burned and still bleeding, Juma recovered in a Baghdad hospital where family members took turns fanning him in 130-degree heat.

In a raspy whisper, Juma begged his relatives to check on Hussein's wife and six children.

"Does she know yet?" he asked. "Have you told her?"

Juma and Hussein weren't supposed to be friends. Not in Iraq, where many residents resent Jordan for supporting U.S.-led forces during the war and for granting asylum last week to two of Saddam Hussein's daughters. Even before those recent differences, Iraqis complained of poor wages and other discrimination against workers who travel west for jobs in Jordan.

Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council issued a statement this week blaming the bombing on forces working against diplomatic relationships with Jordan and other neighboring countries. U.S. officials dispatched an FBI team to investigate the bombing, which they said could have been the work of Ansar al-Islam, an al-Qaida-linked terrorist group known primarily for attacks on Kurds in northern Iraq before the war.

Juma has not followed the investigation and said he is not interested in knowing who carried out the bombing, which was the worst act of terrorism in Iraq since Baghdad fell to U.S.-led forces April 9.

"God will punish them," he said.

Juma grew up next door to a Jordanian family that introduced him to Hussein nearly 10 years ago. Juma admired the older man's keen business sense and devotion to his wife and children. When Hussein went to Amman on business trips, he trusted only Juma to care for his family.

Hussein taught Juma about patience in life and investments. After the war, Juma said, Hussein was excited about business opportunities closed to them under Saddam. On Hussein's recommendation, Juma saved his military pay until he had enough for a car—an invaluable tool for a young entrepreneur in Iraq.

Thursday morning, Juma stuffed his savings in his pockets and hopped into Hussein's car. Along the way, the men joked about whether Juma would buy a Mercedes or a BMW, knowing he could afford neither.

"We were just passing by. We were innocents," Juma said. "The people who did this wanted to hurt Jordanians, but we never looked at Hassan like that. We spoke the same language. He was my brother."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-FRIENDS