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Tuesday, 19 November, 2002, 11:46 GMT
Jordan's peaceful image shattered
Jordanian security forces seal off the town of Maan
Jordanian forces imposed a curfew in Maan

The time might have come to rewrite the guidebooks to Jordan.

"Though surrounded by instability, Jordan is the safest country in the Middle East by quite a long way, and domestic extremism is virtually non-existent," reads a recent introduction to the Hashemite kingdom.

But over the past two weeks two major incidents have dented that comfortable image.

King Abdullah of Jordan
King Abdullah has enjoyed improved relations with the US

On 20 October, a gunman shot dead a US aid official in the first ever killing of a Western official in Jordan.

On 9 November, the authorities sent dozens of tanks rolling into the kingdom's desert-town of Maan to suppress the armed disciples of a local militant preacher, Mohammed Shalabi, better known as Abu Sayyaf.

In an admission of extremist activity, officials say Mr Shalabi was bent on creating a state within a state, stockpiling rocket-propelled grenades and bomb-making equipment to reinforce his claim to Maan.

The Jordanian authorities say the two incidents are not directly related.

But they reveal how high the stakes have risen in the Hashemite kingdom as the gap grows between the pro-Western government and many Jordanians whose sympathies are with Iraq.

This is taking place against the background of the crisis over weapons inspections in Iraq and US preparations for a war against Saddam Hussein.

Anti-US feeling

Jordanian opposition groups have charged the government with allowing the United States to use the kingdom as a launch pad for a strike on Baghdad.

The government, enjoying increasing aid and trade with the US, has denied the charges but says it will do nothing to damage its relations with Washington.

Tensions have risen since the government began hosting US military exercises near the border with Iraq.

In an attempt to silence sources of dissent, the government has restricted civil liberties and delayed elections.

Now on both sides the verbal spat has turned violent.

Hitherto moderate Islamist clerics, meeting within days of the killing of the US aid official, have called for a jihad against US interests in the region.

And Jordan's armed forces have mounted their fiercest onslaught inside the kingdom for 30 years, imposing a week-long curfew on the 70,000 people of Maan in a confrontation in which at least four people were killed.

Ministers said they were weeding out bandits, bank robbers and brigands who were using using the cloak of religion as a cover.

They added that a sweep to collect weapons in Maan will help "boost national security" ahead of the expected US strike against Iraq.

But in this part of the world, violence has a tendency to beget violence.

Tribal opposition

Observers fear that confiscating weapons in a region where carrying guns is viewed as a tribal birthright could make Maan's residents feel that they are being treated as the enemy.

"Why are the authorities cancelling gun licences if they believe they have the people's support?" one shopkeeper asked after five days under military rule.

Weapons taken in Maan
Jordanian TV showed pictures of the weapons seized

Mohammed Shalabi already appears to have garnered considerable popular support in a town which in 1920 led the way for the installation of the Hashemite dynasty.

When government forces moved into the town, his supporters hid on rooftops and exchanged fire with the police.

Tribal leaders also refused the army's demand to hand over Shalabi and his supporters, apparently helping them to flee to Jordan's nearby tourist centre at Petra.

Not over yet

Significantly, there is no sign that the unrest has spread from the Jordanian tribes of the south to the other centre of dissent, the Palestinian refugee camps of the north.

But commentators in Jordan say its effects will still be felt nationwide.

"The investment ambience we talked about for years flew away with the smoke of the first gun fired in the streets of Maan," wrote Jordanian commentator Musa Keilani, in the semi-official English-language daily, the Jordan Times.

Since the killing of the US aid official, hundreds of armed guards have taken up posts in Western residential neighbourhoods, shaking Jordan's claim to be a rare haven of security for foreigners in the region.

Cocktail parties seethe with anguish over when to evacuate, how to confuse hostile stalkers by swapping diplomatic car plates for local plates and what to do about the children.

With tensions continuing to mount over Iraq, few think Jordan's new bout of violence to has ended.

See also:

14 Nov 02 | Middle East
13 Nov 02 | Middle East
12 Nov 02 | Middle East
10 Nov 02 | Middle East
29 Oct 02 | Middle East
31 Jan 02 | Middle East
23 Jan 02 | Middle East
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