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Jordanians becoming increasingly disenchanted with U.S. policies

AMMAN, Jordan—During her whirlwind trip last week to shore up support for the Bush administration in the Middle East, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took a short helicopter ride from Israel to Amman, had dinner with Jordan's King Abdullah, then departed, leaving behind a nation that's facing a crisis over its close relationship with the United States.

"The government may be pro-Western, pro-American, but the people are something different; there is a large divide," said a Jordanian man who gave his name as Abu Momen as he sat at a restaurant with friends. "Our nation is a key ally to the United States, but it's only the government that receives Rice. Try to find someone in the streets who would receive her."

The men around him nodded in agreement.

"We don't know how long this can continue. We are in a state of contradiction: Our government believes one thing and we believe another," he said.

Interviews with Jordanians from all walks of life—peddlers, analysts, opposition party leaders, professors, college students and royalty—showed that Abu Momen isn't alone. Long one of America's closest allies in the region, Jordan is becoming home to a public that's turning sharply against the United States.

That's bad news for Bush administration policy in the Middle East: If it isn't possible to gain widespread support for U.S. policy in relatively peaceful, secularly ruled Jordan, it may not be possible anywhere.

Recent polling by Zogby International found that more than 80 percent of those interviewed in three key Arab countries—Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia—had unfavorable opinions of the United States. The longer that continues, the harder it will be for the ruling parties in those nations to govern while keeping their relationships with America.

Jordanians, like many Arabs, cite U.S. actions as the cause:

_American-backed elections in Iraq resulted in large gains for Iranian-supported Shiite Muslim parties, meaning that Jordan, a Sunni Muslim country, now faces a traditional adversary across its eastern border. Jordanians have watched in disbelief as Shiite militias have killed thousands of Sunnis in Iraq during the past two years.

_The unrest in Iraq has produced a wave of as many as 700,000 Iraqis taking refuge in Jordan; the influx has raised prices and filled the labor market with men willing to work for lower wages than Jordanians.

_To the west, the absence of any progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement has left the West Bank unsettled, raising the specter of civil war between Palestinian factions. Jordanians criticize the White House for not reaching out to the militant Sunni Islamic group Hamas—which won Palestinian parliamentary elections last year—and for not encouraging a power-sharing arrangement with the secular Fatah party. The United States cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority and now is backing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and pledging to train and equip his Fatah security forces.

_Many Jordanians are angry, too, that the Bush administration supported the Israeli military campaign in Lebanon last summer, which weakened Lebanon's Sunni prime minister, Fuad Saniora—who's pro-Western and secular—and emboldened the Iranian-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah, which is trying to overthrow Saniora's government.

King Abdullah echoed the concerns of many other Arab leaders when he said recently that he feared that the Middle East would be racked by three civil wars: between Palestinian factions, in Lebanon and in Iraq.

It's a long way from June of 2003, when President Bush joined Abdullah and Israeli and Palestinian officials in Jordan to announce a road map to peace.

"Great and hopeful change is coming to the Middle East," Bush said then. "In Iraq, a dictator who funded terror and sowed conflict has been removed, and a more just and democratic society is emerging."

In the interim, Bush and his administration pursued a Middle East policy that painted the world in black and white, labeling such groups as Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorists, which prevented talks that could have averted violence, said Oraib Rintawi, the director of a political studies center in Amman.

"They are popular movements; they have their own momentum. You cannot deal with them as terrorist groups," Rintawi said.

Others share his concern. "The region is becoming ungovernable. Governments and administrations are no longer representing the views and hopes and passions of their people," said Prince Hassan bin Talal, King Abdullah's uncle and the former crown prince.

He added: "We can't continue in a monologue about the need for dialogue; delegations go to the United States and they are told, `This is the way it is.'"

On one hand, Jordan has reaped many benefits from its relationship with the United States: trade agreements, military training and more than $5 billion in foreign aid in the past decade, Rintawi said.

"But in the last few years, being a friend of the United States has turned into a big problem, into a threat," he said. "Among the public opinion you will find a consensus on one issue: We cannot shoulder the responsibility for what the Americans are doing in Palestine, in Iraq."

Polling by Zogby International affirms Rintawi's remarks.

In 2002, Zogby found that 34 percent of Jordanians had favorable views of the United States, the second best among five Arab countries. In 2006, that number had plummeted to 5 percent, worst among the five.

When asked what their opinion was of the United States compared with a year before, 76 percent of those interviewed in Jordan said their opinions had worsened, the highest percentage to say so among respondents in the five Arab nations, which included Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt and Morocco.

Many analysts here contend that King Abdullah's staunch public support of Bush has created a wide divide between the country and its people.

In the process, some say, King Abdullah risks losing standing at home and with his fellow Arab leaders.

"The king, he's got a serious problem ... he's got to ensure close ties with the U.S. and stay in touch with the mood of his people and that of the Middle East," said Naser Tahboub, a political analyst who runs a regional consulting firm. "It could be very costly for the king himself, for his legitimacy ... if it continues he will be forced to distance himself from the United States. We are at the crossroads now."

There are murmurs and hints in dusty teahouses, and the living room parlors of some officials, that despite tight national security—which according to Amnesty International includes torturing political opponents and suspected terrorists—street unrest is possible.

"We have taken on all of these burdens without any positive results from the United States. They use Jordan as a tool," said Abdul Latif Arabiat, a former speaker of parliament and a senior leader in the Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood. "The people are asking, the political parties, the centers of power in the country are asking the government to change its position."

Asked what will happen if Jordan and America remain close allies, Arabiat frowned.

"Everything is possible from now on. How long can the people shoulder these things?" Arabiat said. "Sometimes you can't control things. For that reason, everybody is worried; we don't know what will happen."

In downtown Amman, Bassim Moussa, who runs a clothing business, said everyone he knew was furious about the news of King Abdullah meeting with U.S. officials.

"Our government has a good relationship with America, and the people are not happy about it," Moussa said. "At some point, the people will reach a level where they have nothing to lose, and they will begin to act. And the government will respond by calling us terrorists. ... It's like a balloon: If you continue to blow into it, one day it will explode."


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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