The first shots in the war on Iraq were fired in Jordan when King Abdullah II sent tanks into the city of Ma’an, 215 kilometres (135 miles) south of Amman, the capital, to capture or kill besieged Islamic activists. The sweep, which set off fierce gun-battles in some of the city’s neighbourhoods, is widely regarded as a pre-emptive measure in case a US offensive against Iraq comes about. The move to get rid of the most troublesome militants in this downtrodden, remote desert city, which has a history of anti-government disturbances, underscored fears sweeping official circles throughout the Arab world of public revolt, should America attack Iraq.
Jordanian riot police initially moved into Ma’an on November 9 in armoured cars to arrest Muhammad Ahmad al-Shalabi, the outspoken leader of a group of local Islamic activists who are believed to be linked to the banned al-Takfir wal-Hijrah (‘excommunication and emigration’) group, which has declared that the king and his government’s officials are kuffar. But the stiff resistance of hundreds of well-armed youth (many of whom were masked, wore shrouds, and had explosives strapped around their bodies) forced the authorities to send the army into Ma’an on November 11. In the end, thousands of soldiers and police officers fought and shelled their way through the labyrinthine slums of the ancient neighbourhoods before conducting house-to-house searches that lasted several days.
According to government officials, five people (two policemen, two armed activists and one civilian) were killed. But residents estimate that at least ten people lost their lives in the fighting, with scores more sustaining injuries. Between 80 and 100 people were arrested, including Shalabi’s deputy, Khamis Ibrahim Asri Abu Darwish, and his brothers Aser and Ahmad. The detainees also included eight foreigners, believed to be Iraqis and Egyptians. Dozens of weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, hand-grenades, machine-guns and ammunition, as well as bomb-making material and military uniforms, have also been confiscated. Authorities sealed Ma’an off during the operation, cutting off all roads and fixed telephone lines to the city, and preventing people, including journalists, from entering or leaving. A complete curfew was also imposed.
On November 13 the authorities declared Ma’an a “completely weapons-free” zone and declared all weapons’ licenses already issued to residents to be null and void. A government circular instructed citizens to hand over their firearms to officials at the district’s police directorate. “Carrying or storing weapons in Ma’an is prohibited, and violators will be held responsible under the law,” the circular warned. The authorities have already begun collecting arms, and hundreds of weapons have reportedly been handed over. Yet it is doubtful whether the government will really be able to make Ma’an a weapons-free zone in an area where tribesmen are traditionally heavily armed. In 1998 Jordanian security forces confiscated 11,300 arms from Ma’an, but still failed to disarm the population completely, as recent events show.
Government spokesmen have tried to claim that their military action was a security operation pursuing a murderous “gang of outlaws, bandits and arsonists” who were allegedly involved in arms-smuggling and drug-dealing in Ma’an, which is at the intersection of two highways, one connecting Jordan to Saudi Arabia and the other running from the Red Sea port of Aqaba to Amman. The minister of state for political affairs and minister of information, Muhammad ‘Adwan, maintains that members of the group used political and religious affiliations as a front to disguise their criminal activities. At one point the authorities even claimed that “lewd” pictures were in the contraband confiscated from some houses.
But crude disinformation and propaganda rarely succeed in concealing the truth. This trouble started on October 27, when Shalabi fired at police officers who tried to stop him because of a traffic violation on the highway to Amman. Wounded in the shoot-out, he was moved to a hospital in Ma’an, where his supporters forced the police to set him free by threatening to burn the hospital down. The resulting week-long sweep failed to capture Shalabi, who managed to evade capture and is believed to be hiding in the mountains to the south, guarded by armed supporters and tribesmen.
The country’s largest Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood, offered to help mediate a peaceful end to the crisis, but the government refused them. Asked about the mediation in an interview with the Jordan Times, information minister ‘Adwan said: “When the matter involves the national interests of the country and...respect for the law, there is no such thing [as mediation].” He went on to ask rhetorically: “Mediating with what? With a criminal gang?... Either they give themselves up or we will catch them” (November 14, 2002).
Shalabi, also known as Abu Sayyaf, was wanted by the authorities for his role in a wave of protests that swept Ma’an for two days in January, set off by the death of Suleiman al-Fanatsheh, a 17-year-old student, in police custody. During the riots thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Ma’an. The police station and other buildings were set alight. The authorities claimed that they arrested Suleiman because he was about to commit a robbery, and that he died of kidney failure resulting from extreme exhaustion. But his family say that he was arrested for his association with Shalabi, and tortured after police found a picture of Usama bin Ladin on him, as well as photographs of Palestinians martyred during the intifada. Shalabi had organized a rally in Ma’an in support of Bin Ladin during the US bombardment of Afghanistan.
The recent sweep of Ma’an is part of a nationwide campaign against Islamic activists and anti-government critics. Scores of political activists were reportedly rounded up after an unknown assailant shot and killed Laurence Foley, an employee of the US Agency for International Development in Amman, on October 28. Indeed, the fact that the authorities launched their operation in Ma’an immediately after Foley’s assassination led observers to speculate about the role probably played by US security agencies in the Ma’an episode. Opposition sources have accused the government of rounding up suspects in Palestinian refugee-camps and cities throughout the country. A group calling itself Shurafa’ al-Urdun (‘the nobles of Jordan’) claimed responsibility for Foley’s assassination. It issued a statement saying that it killed him in protest against US support for Israel and the “bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Shurafa’ al-Urdun also claimed responsibility for the shooting of an Israeli in Amman in August 2001.
High-profile arrests continued. Shortly before dawn on November 15 Leith Shubeilat, a prominent Islamic and trade unionist leader and former legislator, was arrested at his home in Tafileh, northwest of Ma’an. He was released without charge after being detained and interrogated for 11 hours at a police station in Amman. Security officials said that they grilled him on suspicion of inciting the residents of Ma’an to riot by cell-phone calls intercepted by the police. For his part, Shubeilat said in an interview that the authorities arrested him because “they were not happy with my behaviour.”
Shubeilat has previously been arrested several times and sentenced to prison terms on charges of instigating riots, plotting to overthrow the government, and slandering the royal family in speeches that he had made inside the country and abroad. In September 1992 Shubeilat was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for leading a group that was allegedly plotting to topple the regime. But the late King, Hussein, seeking to contain a public furore, pardoned and released him two months later. In 1995 Shubeilat was arrested and sentenced to a three-year term for “slandering” the royal family in a public speech. He was again pardoned by the king, who himself brought Shubeilat back home from custody. In February 1998 Shubeilat was tried in a military court for “provoking illegal protests” in Ma’an, after he had led an anti-American protest that police dispersed violently, resulting in one death and 20 people injured.
The fact that the government resorted to a massive show of force, rather than a discreet operation, to capture Shalabi and key members of his group led many observers to see in the crackdown a move to pre-empt any possibility of armed resistance against a US-led strike on Iraq. Ma’an has a tradition of Islamic activism and strong anti-government sentiment that has long bothered the authorities. The city was the centre of the April Uprising, a wave of unrest provoked by price increases in April 1988 that led to the fall of the cabinet. When then-crown-prince Hassan visited Ma’an in an attempt to calm the situation, angry residents pelted his car with stones. In February 1998 Ma’an held two days of violent anti-American demonstrations over threatened US strikes against Iraq that left one dead and ten wounded.
But the significance of events in Ma’an transcends seething public anger over the connivance of an Arab regime in a possible war on Iraq. In many ways the clashes point up the deterioration of the tribal foundations underpinning Hashemite rule in Jordan. Like most southern Jordanian towns, Ma’an’s population of 70,000 is predominantly Bedouin. Traditionally major Bedouin tribes and tribal confederations have constituted one of the main pillars of Hashemite rule in Jordan. Their loyalty to the throne has been essential in guaranteeing the continuity of Hashemite rule in the country. Members of these tribes, and the Chechen community in Jordan, have formed the nucleus of the armed forces that enforce support for the government.
The recent events were expressions of disquiet among the tribes of Ma’an, and indications that close-knit tribal loyalties are increasingly turning against, rather than in favour of, the authorities. The government’s show of force came after a meeting in Amman between representatives of the area’s tribes, who refused to hand over the wanted men to the government. Many tribes even protected Abu Sayyaf and members of his group. One can only suspect that Saddam Hussein’s regime may not be the only casualty of a US-led strike against Iraq – the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan could become a casualty too.