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Jordan's king steers nation through turbulence

Wednesday - 10/24/2012, 4:13am  ET

By JAMAL HALABY
Associated Press

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) - The foiling of a planned al-Qaida terror plot in Jordan underscores a new subplot in the story of the Arab Spring: Things are heating up for King Abdullah II, a Western-oriented monarch who has run a business-friendly, pragmatic monarchy with some trappings of democracy.

Jordan, a key U.S. ally that sits at a strategic crossroads between neighboring Syria, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Israel and Saudi Arabia, has so far weathered 22 months of street protests calling for a wider public say in politics.

But this week's announcement that Jordanian authorities had thwarted an al-Qaida plan to attack shopping malls and Western diplomatic missions in the country has raised fears that extremists could take advantage of growing calls for change to foment violence.

The king also has been working overtime to fend off a host of domestic challenges, including a Muslim Brotherhood boycott of parliamentary elections, increasing opposition from his traditional Bedouin allies and an inability to keep the Syrian civil war from spilling over the border.

So far, Abdullah has largely maintained control, partly by relinquishing some of his powers to parliament and amending the country's 60-year-old constitution. His Western-trained security forces have been able to keep protests from getting out of hand. And most in the opposition remain loyal to the king, pressing for reforms but not his removal.

The stakes are high: Abdullah is a close friend of the United States and has been at the forefront in its global war on terrorism, including in Afghanistan. Jordan serves as a buffer zone to Saudi Arabia, another Sunni Muslim country, and to Israel, a friend under a peace treaty signed in 1994. The kingdom hosts the largest Palestinian population outside the West Bank.

"The worst nightmare would be for Israel and Saudi Arabia," said liberal lawmaker Jamil Nimri. "Jordan shares the longest border with Israel and is one of its few remaining Arab friends, while for the Saudis, it's a neighboring country with a similar monarchy system in trouble."

Concern over Jordan's stability was underlined last month, when its U.S., British and French allies quickly dispatched their military experts to help Jordanian commandos devise plans to shield the population in case of a chemical attack from neighboring Syria.

Jordan is worried that Syrian President Bashar Assad might lose control over his chemical weapons in the civil war and that his stock could subsequently fall into the hands of al-Qaida or Lebanon's Islamic militant group Hezbollah.

More than 210,000 Syrian refugees also have fled to the kingdom to escape the violence at home, straining basic services like water, electricity and the health care system.

In the past three months, dozens of Jordanian policemen were wounded in violent riots at a dust-filled refugee camp packed with 35,000 Syrians near the northern border.

A growing number of stray Syrian missiles also have fallen on Jordanian villages in the north in recent weeks, wounding several civilians as Assad widened his offensive against rebel holdouts near the Jordanian frontier.

A Jordanian border patrol officer also was shot dead Monday during army clashes with eight militants who sought to illegally cross a border fence into Syria.

Hours before the clash, Jordan announced that authorities had arrested 11 suspected al-Qaida-linked militants for allegedly planning to attack shopping malls and Western diplomatic missions in the country with explosives and rockets.

Two Arab diplomats, insisting on anonymity because they are not allowed to make press statements, said regional intelligence indicates that militants see Jordan as an "easy prey" as they try to consolidate their presence between hot spots.

"The Jordanian people can never enjoy complete stability when our country is surrounded by wars and uprisings," said Yousef Matarneh, a 45-year-old civil servant.

Abdullah has tried to forestall Arab Spring-style uprisings that have toppled autocratic regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, and led to the war in Syria.

His reform roadmap envisions parliamentary polls as a vehicle toward having an elected prime minister for the first time in Jordan's history. Previously, it was the king's prerogative to appoint the premier.

Abdullah also has been trying to buttress his ailing economy, straining under $23 billion foreign debt, a record deficit of $2 billion and rising inflation, by inviting foreign investment and marketing Jordan as a tourist destination.

"If you want to change Jordan for the better, there is a chance, and that chance is through the upcoming elections," he told a gathering of 3,000 prominent politicians and businessmen on Tuesday. "There is a way, and that way is through the next parliament."

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