U.S. officials stress that the American invasion of Iraq is an effort to “liberate” the Iraqi people. But in neighboring Jordan, many Iraqis who fled Saddam Hussein’s regime are now returning home to fight for their native land. And that’s worrying pro-U.S. Jordanian leaders, who fear their own population could turn against them.
We're driving in the air-conditioned cool of a silver S-class Mercedes, listening to a man in a rumpled pin-striped suit talk about the war. He is a “highly placed official” in the Jordanian government, a background source who doesn’t trust telephones and insists we discuss sensitive issues in person. The desert whizzes by. He is talking about an Iraqi terror plot that could have rocked Amman and altered the focus of the war next door, at least for a while.
“Two things,” he says. “The first, to try to poison the water supply for one unit of the Jordanian military.” He doesn’t have to explain the motivation for this terror initiative: The extremists’ view — certainly the view of Iraqi nationalists who live in Jordan — is that Jordan and its military are complicit in the U.S.-led war despite this country’s long-standing and carefully crafted neutrality and pre-existing relations with both parties in the conflict. A successful attack against Jordan’s military would have had a profoundly destabilizing impact here and throughout the Arab world beyond Iraq’s borders, but the poison was never delivered.
The other terror initiative progressed much further. Three Iraqi agents, expatriates living in Amman, had collected significant quantities of gasoline and incendiary devices in an attempt to blow up a major hotel that has housed many Western journalists over the past two months. They’d actually gotten their would-be bomb to the hotel when they were arrested.
“It’s not about Saddam,” the official says, “he doesn’t even matter, though he’s belatedly being cast as a hero even by those who’ve hated him.” He looks at the desert and emits a small laugh, at some private insight. “These people doing this, wanting to attack the U.S. and whoever they think represents or supports them — nobody’s holding a gun to their head and making them do it.”
ARMED TO THE TEETH
That’s true in other ways we’ve seen. All week long, NBC producer Matt Carluccio and I had been reporting on a remarkable phenomenon: Instead of the expected flood of Iraqi refugees pouring into Jordan (there were none, zero, at week’s end) there was a reverse flood of Iraqi expats — many of whom had fled Saddam’s repressions — now going back to Iraq to fight the U.S. and coalition “invaders.”
They’ve been coming to the border by bus, taxi, private car, somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 so far, Jordanian officials say, and while there’s no way to know how many really intend to take up arms and join the irregular fedayeen militias who’ve proved so deadly, they all say that’s their goal precisely. We even interviewed a woman on one of the buses. Smiling throughout, she said she might not be able to find a gun, but that she had hands and teeth and would use those to fight, if she had to. She bared her teeth and raised her clenched fists for our camera.
WHOSE BAD DAY?
On Saturday in our work space here, a young Jordanian woman named Lara Sukhtian who is part of our team hangs up the phone and frowns in concern. There’s confusion on her face too, and I ask her what’s wrong.
“That was my father,” she says, “I was just checking in with him, telling him about the suicide bombing.” The world had just learned that outside Najaf, south of Baghdad, four U.S. servicemen had been killed when an Iraqi soldier, dressed as a civilian, had waved them toward his car in a seeming appeal for assistance and then triggered his explosives. “I said to my father it’s a bad day in the war,” Lara says, “and he paused a bit and then said, ‘Well, maybe for the Americans.’” She shakes her head. “He’s been married to an American for 35 years. He loves America, but if America has lost my father…” She doesn’t finish the sentence.
OUT OF CONTROL?
The next day, in the Mercedes, we are talking to our official source about the mood in his country. The anti-U.S. demonstrations are growing in number and ferocity. His government’s official news service, Petra, now routinely refers to the war as the “invasion.”
Our source had warned us a month earlier that his biggest worry was about a protracted war. “Watch the ‘Arab street’ in that case,” he had said. “That’s where the story will be.” I tell him about Lara’s phone conversation with her father, and he shakes his head, digesting it, for he himself is unabashedly in love with the America he has come to know well.
Matt says to him, so what about the Arab street? Is our source worried that at any minute now it will be out of control?
“Not yet,” he says. “We have allowed many demonstrations — it’s important that our people are allowed to express their legitimate feelings.” He looks out the window, then back to us. “Not yet,” he repeats.
The desert whizzes by.
(NBC News correspondent Mike Taibbi has been reporting from the Iraqi-Jordanian border.)