Unquiet On The Western Front

Only a handful of refugees cross the border from western Iraq to the Ruweished checkpoint each morning. Emergency camps set up to receive thousands who were expected to flee the war stand all but empty. A Palestinian economist who drove from Kuwait across Iraq last week offers a simple explanation. The last 200 miles of highway is "very dangerous," he says. "You can't believe how dangerous." Allied bombs have cratered the road's six lanes; tankers, vans and trucks full of furniture smolder along the shoulders. In Iraq, he says, "people would rather die in their homes than die on the road."

This is the western front of the Persian Gulf War, and it is rarely quiet. While much of the world's attention is focused on the ground war looming around Kuwait, the wide-open deserts of western Iraq may provide Saddam with the setting for his last and boldest effort to widen the war. This is where he bases his Scud missile launchers for attacks on Tel Aviv; this is where the allies have concentrated many of their bombing raids. It is the closest front Saddam has to Israel, which he desperately hopes to draw into the conflict. So far he has failed. But geographically and politically, all that stands between Saddam and the hills of Jerusalem is the nation of Jordan - and his old friend King Hussein.

Jordan's monarch flatly refuses to join in the war. "To do what?" he said one evening last week, relaxing in the private quarters of his palace. "The best thing that Jordan can do is to preserve its land and its people." But pressures are building daily to bring Jordan into the war on one side or the other. Many Jordanians, including influential fundamentalist leaders, fervently support Saddam. Washington's allies, meanwhile, are stirring resentments. Saudi Arabia has cut off much of Jordan's oil. Coalition jets have blasted tankers trying to bring fuel through western Iraq, killing nine Jordanian truckers, wounding more than a dozen others. "The noose is tightening," said the king. "I think we are going through a period of controlled and uncontrolled madness."

For the moment the king feels no direct pressure from Iraq to enter the fight. "None at all," he says. He denies Israeli reports that a Jordanian delegation sent to Baghdad after the war began came away shaken by Saddam's anger and concerned that he might try to force Jordan into the war. But an Arab envoy acquainted with the Iraqi regime says that "Saddam personally would like to see the war widened in three directions: Jordan, Syria and Iran." With Damascus holding firm in the alliance and Teheran inclined to sit out the fight, a move into Jordan - with or without the king's consent - could be another of Saddam's bitter surprises. King Hussein has cautiously re-enforced the military on all his borders, Iraq's included. "The very clear orders given to our armed forces are 'Look in every direction'," he says.

Militarily, Jordan's best defense may be the allied bombers clearing Iraq's western desert of everything that moves. But it is the king's political acumen, developed during 38 years in power that will probably ensure the neutrality he wants.

To Saddam and his supporters, the king offers mostly rhetoric. In an impassioned speech last week, he condemned "this destructive war," accusing the United States and its allies of trying to "destroy Iraq" and restructure the region by force. The king spoke with conviction about the suffering of the Iraqi people, but failed to mention either Kuwait - or Saddam Hussein. In the end, he called for peace. The remarks were greeted enthusiastically by Jordanians and denounced by Iraq's Arab foes as an avowal of alliance with Saddam. Washington responded with a "review" of aid to Jordan and the threat of a possible cut. Yet President Bush cautioned that "You have to listen to the rhetoric and understand why it's being used out in that part of the world."

Unlike the Kuwaiti battlefield, where the allied goal is straightforward - to force Iraq's withdrawal - the war's western front is fraught with all the political complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Each move is loaded with implications not only for the war, but for the peace the Bush administration wants to build when the fighting is over. The president has known the king for years. (On a table in the palace sitting room, Bush's autographed picture is tactfully, neutrally displayed side by side with Saddam's.) If the Israelis can be brought to the table to negotiate a lasting peace, Washington wants the king to be there. "When we look at alternatives [to the king] we don't see what we perceive to be a particularly pretty picture," Secretary of State James Baker told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.

Despite his country's current problems, the king has never been better suited to the task. His identification with Saddam, a hero to many Palestinians, has given him new popularity in the Israeli-occupied territories and among the Palestinian majority in his own country. U.S. officials hope the king can serve as a partner with Palestinian leaders in future peace talks. Hussein is less sanguine. "I'm not naive enough to suggest we might live through this period to pick up the pieces," he says. He's been down that road before. On the western front, the path to peace can be almost as risky as the highway to Baghdad.