Jordan: coping with a war next door

Gil Loescher Arthur C. Helton
1 April 2003

The US-led war on Iraq has already spawned a variety of deep uncertainties in the region. The Jordanian government in particular is keenly aware of the political, security and humanitarian risks. This became clear in an interview Arthur Helton conducted with Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, Jordan’s ambassador to the UN, at the Jordanian Mission in New York in late March. But the ambassador goes further, emphasising an astonishing failure of war planning that will profoundly affect humanitarian and recovery operations in Iraq.


- The US has undertaken almost no consultation with Jordan or other neighbours of Iraq about the humanitarian and political effects of the war

- Jordan has worked with the UNHCR to set up two camps for prospective refugees from Iraq, with capacity for 20,000 people

- The US State and Treasury departments are ready to share the reconstruction burden with the UN, but the Pentagon is reluctant

- The US may reconsider its opposition to the International Criminal Court in the light of war, as a better way to deal with rogue regimes and dictators

Preparing for catastrophe

In the months before the war, apart from some coordination among intelligence and security services, there was actually little or no consultation by the US government with the governments bordering Iraq on the broad range of possible political and humanitarian consequences of the conflict.

While the Pentagon was eager to discuss the future with opposition Iraqi exiles, there was no corresponding effort to engage regional governments on the question. The result was a frenzy of conjecture, not only on the part of governments themselves, but also at the United Nations, in the effort to prepare for the fallout from war – including a possible refugee crisis.

Jordan delayed preparing for an influx until almost the last minute because of its dependence on Iraqi oil. When Jordan finally did start preparations, the government worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to establish two camps near Ruwaished, in eastern Jordan near the border with Iraq, with a total capacity of 20,000 persons.

One of the camps is designed to accommodate Iraqi refugees, and the other third-country nationals (mostly migrant workers) who reside in Iraq. Assistance is being provided by the quasi-governmental Jordanian Red Cross and the Hashemite Charitable Society, an international charity.

The camps, still under construction, currently stand largely empty. Over the course of three weeks in March, the IOM assisted 559 third-country nationals who had come from Iraq. While no refugees have yet crossed into Jordan, the numbers of Iraqis returning from Jordan to Iraq in March now amount to 4,000, many of whom vow to take up arms against US and UK forces. Some 380,000 Iraqis live in Jordan, many subsisting under difficult and austere circumstances.

Ambassador Al-Hussein, a historian of the Middle East, is prepared to be surprised by the twists and turns of events in the current conflict. “We are not prophets; we will always get it wrong,” he noted. The war, of course, is still only in its second week, and a humanitarian catastrophe could yet emerge. Witness the city of Basra, surrounded by British forces, where according to the United Nations, residents have been put at risk of disease because of an inadequate water supply. Thousands of Iraqis are already internally displaced by the unfolding conflict.

Passing the parcel of reconstruction

The fractious UN Security Council debate over the decision to go to war has produced lingering tensions evident in the wrangling over the role that the UN may play in the post-conflict phase. Against this backdrop, the limited agreement to resume Iraq’s oil-for-food programme under UN auspices may herald a form of rapprochement.

But to Al-Hussein, it seems clear that, while the US State Department and the Treasury Department want to share the reconstruction burden with the UN, the Pentagon is not so inclined. The new office in the Defense Department devoted to Iraqi’s reconstruction is deployed to the region and is pushing ahead with planning for nation-building – ensuring security throughout the country, establishing participatory governance, building justice and reconciliation mechanisms, and promoting economic and social well-being.

Will this new US government sub-agency, even as augmented by contracts with large private companies, have the nimbleness, sophistication and expertise to get ahead of the mosques and provide essential social services to a sullen, distrustful and impoverished population? Ambassador Al-Hussein is dubious. Yet, social assistance strategies by Islamic charities have successfully drawn adherents in Pakistan and elsewhere, and help to nurture militants.

Looking for a silver lining, the ambassador expresses the hope that current circumstances might move the United States to become a party to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Al-Hussein, who chairs the General Assembly’s governing body for the ICC, notes how indictments and prosecutions could prove to be a far more effective tool against rogue regimes and dictators like Saddam Hussein, than typically “dumb” economic sanctions, which invariably press hardest upon ordinary people.

After war, the challenge of nation-building

In responding to a question posed about a spate of recently reported worries that Israel might take the opportunity to forcibly transfer Palestinian refugees into Jordan under the cover of the conflict, Ambassador Al-Hussein seems uncertain of the risk. In fact, he personally is more worried about the possibility of an induced chaos which could prompt migration to Jordan. Drawing upon his experience as a political advisor to the UN Protection Force mission deployed in Croatia in the early 1990s, Al-Hussein marveled at how effective Franjo Tudjman had been in creating an ethnically pure state through such tactics.

Ambassador Al-Hussein likes to ask big questions. Is the war on Iraq an audacious gamble to create a new situation in the Middle East? As such, “it may be successful”, he allowed. But if the notion is that a good result follows from good preparation, there is a problem. “The preparation here has not been so good”, he concludes ruefully.

Yes, we get much of it wrong. The military phase of the war on Iraq is but a prelude to a set of daunting nation-building challenges there, and for which there are few precedents. But perhaps the best hope now is for the war to end quickly and well.

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