The dust-up in the Dungeon video arcade began when a group of Jordanian teenagers cursed aloud about television reports that at least one of the suicide bombings that shook this city Wednesday was carried out by an Iraqi.
Several young Iraqis playing computer games in the dark, two-story shop in Amman's Rabia neighborhood, which has a high concentration of Iraqi residents, shouted back. When a Jordanian jabbed his lit cigarette into an Iraqi boy's hand, the argument escalated into a five-on-five brawl Thursday night, according to an account provided by three witnesses, including the Dungeon's assistant manager who was on duty that night.
"People were hitting with keyboards, mouses and fists," said Muhammed Jamil, 26, the Jordanian-born owner of a nearby computer shop who watched the melee erupt. "There is a difficult situation here between Iraqis and Jordanians. It is getting worse."
As new details emerged Friday about the bombings of three hotels that killed nearly 60 people, tension appeared to be mounting between Jordanians and the Iraqis who have streamed into this country by the thousands in recent years, Amman residents said. Their presence has both boosted Jordan's economy and inspired resentment, while complicating already thorny relations between the neighboring countries.
‘First of the heavy rain’
A statement posted on the Internet Friday, purportedly by the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq, asserted that the attacks were the work of four Iraqi suicide bombers, including a husband-and-wife team that struck the Days Inn.
"This is the first of the heavy rain," the statement warned. Jordanian officials would not comment on the veracity of the information.
Deputy Prime Minister Marwan Muasher said security forces had arrested 12 suspects Thursday and Friday as part of the investigation into the attacks. He also said the remains of four bombers , three men and one woman, had been found. But he would not comment on the nationality of those apprehended, except to say that "certainly some of them" are Jordanian.
Widely considered one of the strongest U.S. allies in the Middle East, the Jordanian government opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, partly out of concern that instability there could spread across borders. Since then, while declining to send soldiers to Iraq, Jordan has been supportive of U.S. efforts there, providing, for example, territory for facilities to train Iraq's security forces. Opinion polls show widespread opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq among the Jordanian public.
Relations between Jordan and Iraq have been turbulent in recent months. After it was reported that a suicide bombing Feb. 28 that killed 125 people in the Iraqi city of Hilla was carried out by a Jordanian, large demonstrations ensued in Baghdad and the countries recalled top diplomats from their respective capitals. After the bombings Wednesday in Amman, Iraqi government spokesman Laith Kubba blamed what he termed Jordan's sympathy for insurgent groups and willingness to provide sanctuary for former members of Saddam Hussein's government.
There are now more than 400,000 Iraqis living in Jordan. Many fled to here following the invasion, including several prominent supporters and associates of Hussein. Their presence -- along with journalists, contractors and military personnel passing through Amman on the way into and out of Iraq -- has provided an economic windfall. But some Jordanians blame Iraqis for taking away jobs, creating a housing crunch and pushing real estate prices up by 100 percent in some neighborhoods.
"I don't expect you will see a major difference in terms of measures taken against Iraqis if Iraqis are implicated in the attacks, but you may see some increased resentment," said Fares Braizat, a political scientist at Jordan University's Center for Strategic Studies. "Many of those who came here had very old business or family ties to Iraq, but the ones who came more recently, many of whom have fewer resources, are viewed more suspiciously,"
Attitudes change after attack
Braizat said in an opinion poll conducted last year by his office, 67 percent of Jordanian adult respondents had considered al Qaeda in Iraq "a legitimate resistance organization." That attitude may be changing, he said Friday, explaining that he had spoken since the attacks to 10 survey participants who held favorable views of al Qaeda; nine of them had changed their minds.
For the second consecutive day Friday, large numbers of Jordanians took to the streets to denounce the attacks and al Qaeda and call for the nation to come together. During Friday prayers at the King Abdullah Mosque, Imam Muhammed Khair Alesa told worshipers, "What happened in Amman is making our society united in solidarity with each other."
Several Iraqis here said they did not expect to be blamed as a group, no matter what the results of the government's investigation into the attacks.
"We heard Iraqis were involved in the Aqaba attack months ago and nothing happened to Iraqis in Jordan," said Nabil Abdul-Hur Toman, 34, referring to an unsuccessful rocket attack on a U.S. warship near the Jordanian port of Aqaba, for which al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility. "I don't think they're going to blame Iraqis or make problems for us."
Others said they were concerned about a further backlash.
"There are already all kinds of hassles and harassment, and there will be more," said Ahmed Thanun, 21, a university student in Amman who lives in Rabia, which has several Iraqi restaurants along its main commercial street. "The police will be checking us all the time. People are worried they will be asked to leave the country."
Muasher, the deputy prime minister, discounted the possibility of a backlash. "Even if the perpetrators were Iraqis, they are criminals not related to any religion, nationality or faith," he said.
Special correspondents Yasmin Mousa in Amman and Omar Fekeiki in Baghdad contributed to this report.