- The Washington Times - Friday, February 28, 2003

MA'AN, Jordan Egyptian laborers still flock here seeking work. Arms smugglers are attracted by the unpoliced desert roads that connect this dusty town with Saudi Arabia and Iraq. And criminals seek refuge here, protected by tribal chiefs disdainful of Jordan's central government.
For years, this isolated town has been in a subdued state of revolt against Amman: Three months after a brutal military crackdown, little has changed.
"There is stealing, robbery, smuggling of weapons, of drugs, the most-wanted people come here to hide," said a Ma'ani police officer, who acknowledges that his force lacks authority. "People don't like the local police, and don't respect anyone who sides with the government."
Police and soldiers are evident every few blocks along the town's main roads, but local authorities say that order may not be restored for long.
Many Ma'anis consider their first allegiance to tribal systems and an increasingly political Islam, with Amman coming a distant third. They are resentful of the government, which they consider too close to the United States, too supportive of Israel, and unresponsive to their economic plight.
Iraq has a lot of support here, and it's not uncommon to find children named for leader Saddam Hussein or his sons, Uday and Qusay. Like many Jordanians, the residents of Ma'an are furious at King Abdullah's public support for U.S. military plans and are highly suspicious of Americans.
"Jordan should help our neighbor Iraq, not work with the United States and Israel," said one Ma'ani. "We, of course, support Iraq against the invasion of the United States."
Ma'an with its population of Bedouins, Palestinians, Egyptians, militant Islamists and other disenfranchised groups is a potential flash point in Jordan, a small and carefully controlled kingdom whose neighbors include Israel and Iraq. They note that it's never good to have an area in open defiance of the central government, a place where lawlessness can quietly flourish and wanted men can disappear.
Indeed, it was the manhunt for an activist suspected in the slaying of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley that touched off an Israeli-style occupation of Ma'an in November. Police sealed off the town, cutting roads and phone lines, and rounded up more than 130 suspects in their fruitless search for Mohamad Shalabi, better known by his nom de guerre of Abu Sayyaf.
Four Ma'anis and two soldiers died during the gunfights, and large-caliber scars are still visible on scorched buildings and shattered homes.
It was the first armed conflict between the Jordanian military and armed political groups since the bloody routing of the Black September Palestinian factions in the early 1970s.
The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, noted last week in a report on the November crackdown that Ma'an is "a place where regional and national cleavages converge and are magnified."
Therefore, it said, "the recent events are a timely, and indeed urgent, warning of the potential for broader dissatisfaction and unrest in the county as a whole should economic, social and political difficulties remain unaddressed."
"The Ma'an threat is a demonstration effect," said Joost Hiltermann, director of the ICG's Jordan office. "People see they can defy the government and get away with it."
Ma'an is, more than anything, a trading post, although its wares are difficult to see. Many people here are involved in various smuggling schemes, according to regional leaders, the Jordanian government and the Ma'anis themselves. The region ranks at the bottom of a recent U.N. survey of Jordan's human development progress.
"We need more jobs, more factories. The government should do more for us," said one man, who like most Ma'anis did not want to give his name. "Why do they not have these problems in Tafila and Kerak?" he said of two similar-size but more prosperous towns. "Why is it only here?"
It is from Ma'an that pickup trucks carrying small arms and sizable military weapons set off on the desolate road to the Iraqi border some 400 miles away and that cars carry Jordanian hashish into the Saudi desert. And it is to Ma'an that Saudi traders bring everything from illegal weapons to undeclared sheep to a strict interpretation of Islam that is at odds with the largely secular kingdom.
It is a volatile mix.
"We are all worried about what will happen about Iraq," said an Egyptian who came here years ago to work in a cement plant for about $13 a day. He is concerned that he and thousands of other foreigners will be expelled when the war with Iraq begins.
Although King Abdullah surprised many here last week when he publicly accepted the ICG report, the groups says the real test is whether the government takes up any of its recommendations to improve security and governance.


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