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Jordan's King Risks Shah's Fate, Critics Warn

Abdullah II, who has closely allied himself with the U.S., is accused by reformers and traditionalists alike of alienating his people.

October 01, 2006|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

AMMAN, Jordan — A politically inexperienced king takes control of a Middle Eastern monarchy from his powerful father, surrounds himself with U.S. military hardware and spies, loses touch with his people and is finally ejected in a popular uprising.

That was the tale of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, the pro-American ruler of Iran whose ouster ushered in the reign of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and three decades of Islamic rule.

Now many in this Arab country of more than 5 million people fear that a similar fate could befall King Abdullah II, the Jordanian monarch who assumed power after his charismatic father died in 1999.

"Until now in Amman we don't have a Khomeini," said one mid-ranking official serving the Jordanian Cabinet. "If there was a Khomeini, then this family would be in trouble."

The king's father, Hussein, deftly balanced his country's contradictory pressures. He paid respects to the conservative East Bank tribes' demands for stability while also attending to calls from the nation's more cosmopolitan majority Palestinians for democratic change.

But critics on both sides of the Jordanian divide say the 44-year-old king has failed to garner popular support. Descendants of the tribes that are the monarchy's base criticize the king for failing to abide by tribal customs and losing touch with his supporters. They whisper the name of Abdullah's popular younger brother, Hamzeh. Palestinian groups and activists fear that the government in Amman has gotten too close to Washington, has adopted the Bush administration's with-us-or-against-us worldview too thoroughly and is sliding on human rights and democracy.

"King Hussein was an artist," said Ivan Eland, for 17 years a staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and now an analyst at the Oakland-based Independent Institute, a think tank. "He was roundly criticized for supporting Saddam [Hussein] in the first Gulf War. But in retrospect, he looked pretty smart.

"The son has gotten more in bed with the United States," he added. "He hasn't been distancing himself from American policy. That has put him in a hole he hasn't been able" to get out of.

Numerous parallels exist between the shah's rule and that of Abdullah. Like the shah's SAVAK security and intelligence service, Jordan's General Intelligence Department, now in a new hilltop complex in an Amman suburb, operates as a "subdivision" of the CIA, said Alexis Debat, a former French Defense Ministry official who is a counter-terrorism consultant and a senior fellow at the Nixon Center in Washington.

By Debat's estimates, the Jordanian intelligence agency receives at least $20 million a year in U.S. funding for operations and liaison work. "They're doing all the legwork for the CIA," he said.

The Jordanians have become one of Washington's closest allies in the intelligence-gathering business, second only to Britain's MI6, counter-intelligence experts say. They are closer to the CIA than the Mossad, Israel's much-touted intelligence agency, which is considered to have too much of an agenda of its own to be completely reliable, Debat said.

Like the Iran of the 1970s, Jordan has become a receptacle of U.S. interests and trade. American aid to the kingdom has totaled $3.59 billion over the last five years, compared with $1.36 billion during the previous five years, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Like the shah's regime, the Jordanian monarchy has surrounded itself with American hardware. Just before Hussein's death, Amman took delivery of 16 advanced F-16 fighter jets. "That was a sort of threshold that Jordan crossed," said Michael R. Fischbach, a professor of history at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia. "They got truly advanced weaponry. It made Jordan have aircraft on par with Israel."

U.S.-made military hardware abounds on Jordan's streets. Jordanian soldiers carrying American-made M-16 assault rifles and riding in olive-green U.S.-made Humvees watch over sensitive military and political sites in Amman, the capital. Convoys of U.S. military transport trucks move in and out of the country.

Perhaps most controversially, say Amnesty International and other human rights groups, Jordan has become an important nexus in U.S. intelligence's subterranean "renditions" network, in which terrorism suspects are secretly detained and interrogated in countries with blemished human rights records. Jordanian officials deny participation in the program.

Many worry that bolstering Jordanian security forces amid widespread reports of abuses against detainees has hampered the country's baby steps toward democratization.

"The security forces are improving at the cost of democracy," said Hamzeh Mansur, a leader of the Islamic Action Front, the main Islamist parliamentary bloc.

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