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Arraf: Terrorist Attacks in Amman, Baghdad Underscore ‘Complete Uncertainty’ in Region

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Jane Arraf
November 10, 2005

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Jane Arraf, the Council's Edward R. Murrow press fellow, who recently was CNN's bureau chief in Baghdad, and earlier, the Reuters bureau chief in Amman, says what is striking about the continued terrorist attacks, such as occurred on Wednesday in Amman and Thursday in Baghdad, is the "complete uncertainty" this causes in people's minds.

"I think one of the biggest effects of terrorist attacks, like the ones that occurred at the three hotels in Jordan and the ones that you see every day in Baghdad, is how impossible it is now to envision a future that's secure; it's impossible to invest money, it's impossible to make plans, and it has a continuing ripple effect," she says.

"Jordan has been, as you know, one of the most stable, calmest places in the Middle East—a little oasis, really, between Syria and Iraq and all of that uncertainty and turbulence. And now it's clearly not."

Arraf was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on November 10, 2005.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads for the Middle East today on a rather short visit to Bahrain, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Saudi Arabia, on her way to East Asia. But the news, of course, from the Middle East today is the terrorist attacks in Amman, Jordan, and in the Baghdad restaurant, which are claimed by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. What do you think the overriding atmosphere is in the Middle East these days? Very gloomy, I suppose.

Not just gloomy, complete uncertainty. If you start off with Iraq, I think one of the biggest effects of terrorist attacks, like the ones that occurred at the three hotels in Jordan and the ones that you see every day in Baghdad, is how impossible it is now to envision a future that's secure; it's impossible to invest money, it's impossible to make plans, and it has a continuing ripple effect. I think what has happened in Jordan will have a similar sort of effect. Jordan has been, as you know, one of the most stable, calmest places, in the Middle East—a little oasis, really, between Syria and Iraq and all of that uncertainty and turbulence. Now, it's clearly not.

Talk a bit about Jordan, because you were bureau chief there for Reuters and later you were there often as CNN's bureau chief in Baghdad.

If you look at where Jordan was in 1991 during the first Persian Gulf War, when I was based in Jordan, you remember Jordan hung in the balance. King Hussein was thought to be siding with Saddam Hussein. Would the United States continue to support Jordan? Jordan, we have to remember, doesn't have money, it doesn't have resources, it has to rely on other countries. It has a splintered population. So, we went from that, where really the economy of Jordan was in trouble and the future was uncertain to a country that gets a tremendous amount of foreign aid from almost everyone, that's seen as a buffer state in the midst of all the violence.

If you go to Amman these days, it's full of Starbucks, luxury hotels. It's always thought of as the Switzerland of the Middle East. You might think if you were only in Amman, "Gosh what a prosperous, calm country." That's slightly misleading because there have been tensions under the surface. There are an awful lot of young, unemployed people. There is poverty in many parts of the country. You don't have to go very far outside of the main city center to see that poverty. There are a lot of rifts there.

Lately it's done very well economically because it has relied on foreign aid and tourism, which have worked for them. Politically, it has done tremendously well in keeping that middle ground, in being seen as the hope of "moderate Islam."

Of course, Jordan has signed a peace treaty with Israel. When was that? 1994?

Yes.

That's helped it out with the United States immensely, obviously. They participate, as does Egypt, in this special trade agreement by which if some goods have components made in Israel, they get some tariff-free treatment entering the United States.

Yes, but that by itself hasn't proved to have tremendous impact, just because Jordan so far has not been able to get those industries and get real value-added products going to the United States in a way that would really make a difference to the economy.

What it has done was to try to remake itself as a banking center. As you mentioned, there is a lot of money that's flown into Jordan. It started in 1991 when the Palestinians and Jordanians were expelled from Kuwait. They brought all their money to Jordan—that's really when the economic revitalization started. Now, with the latest war in 2003, it became a haven for rich Iraqis. Not every Iraqi could come to Jordan, but certainly the ones with money were encouraged and allowed to come and that's changed the dynamic somewhat. It has created a flow of money into the country, but that has raised prices and created some resentment among Jordanians. Overall, it has made Jordan an economically vital place.

What is security like in Jordan? In other words, were these hotel explosions completely unexpected?

No, you'll recall that there have been attempts like this before. There have been other attempts planned, but they were foiled. Security is very deceptive. Jordan, of course, has been trying to encourage tourists to come and has been relatively successful. So, if you land in Amman, the airport personnel, unless they have reason to be suspicious of you, will be extremely friendly. You can get into a taxi without fear, you can drive to the capital, and you can check into a hotel without being searched, without going through a metal detector. Unless you're playing quite close attention, you would never really see the security in most hotels. That doesn't mean that there is no security; it is one of those countries that is under quite tight control, there are a lot of secret police, there are a lot of plain clothes security. They will be in the hotels. You won't necessarily see them if you're not looking.

I see. If you're a Westerner, in particular, they'll probably let you go more easily, too.

Yes. Absolutely. There is nothing that Arabs are more afraid of than other Arabs.

These hotels—the Radisson, the Hyatt, and the Days Inn that were hit—the Days Inn obviously is not a luxury hotel.

It's not. The Days Inn was basically a budget hotel, but it was a hotel that Gulf visitors would stay at as well as United Nations types and people who didn't have huge expense accounts; tourists from the region would stay there. It's a small hotel.

I wonder why they picked that one.

I would say that it's a target of opportunity. If they really wanted to hit at a hotel that was a symbol of rich tourists or American officials, it would not have been any of those three. The hotels where those people stay are much more heavily guarded.

Which ones are those? Four Seasons?

There are other hotels that are much more high profile. The Hyatt is a five-star hotel where you would get a lot of foreigners and you'd get a lot of conferences. One of the things that Jordan has been able to do is basically become a back door to Iraq. It's been very hard to get a hotel room in Jordan in the last year because it's always full of conferences particularly dealing with Iraq. Instead of going to Baghdad, which is too dangerous, people will come to Amman to talk about doing business in Iraq, for instance.

Unfortunately, in the Radisson, there was a wedding going on. Are weddings fairly common in these hotels?

Yes, it's hard to walk into a hotel without stumbling over a wedding. It was a Jordanian wedding in a middle-class hotel. Once again, it's a place where some foreigners would stay but a lot of Jordanians and a lot of regional tourists would have stayed there as well.

As former Baghdad bureau chief for CNN, do you have any thoughts about Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi being in this country, meeting with Secretary Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney? It's unclear to me what the impression is of Chalabi in Iraq.

It's a fascinating story. When he first came back, you would actually see graffiti on the walls saying, "Ahmed the thief," because he had been convicted in Jordan of defrauding a bank there. He carried this baggage with him and people generally did not trust him. He consolidated his power. He is a master politician to the extent that he reinvented himself as a Shiite. He is Shiite, but he never before professed the desire to be a Shiite leader, but all of the sudden he was meeting with [Shiite leader Grand] Ayatollah [Ali] al-Sistani, who is absolutely revered.

Now, he seems to have reinvented himself again to become more secular. People don't necessarily like him, they don't necessarily trust him, but they know they have to deal with him. I've asked other politicians in Baghdad what it is with Amed Chalabi, why it is that he succeeds so well, and I've been told that the man is simply unstoppable. He's a master politician, he knows how to compromise, he knows when to compromise, he knows how to play hardball. If you look at where he came from—being accused of being one of the main reasons that the United States was misled on weapons of mass destruction and still under investigation for possible involvement in sending intelligence to Iran—it is absolutely remarkable that he is where he is now.

Before he came to the United States on this current trip, he was in Iran seeking the backing of the Iranians. I thought that was really bizarre.

In the absence of really experienced politicians or anyone who commands any real diverse following in Baghdad, he is seen as someone, whatever you think of him, who can command enough followers, get enough votes, reach out to enough political players. So he is seen as the least of the evils now.

Is he a possible prime minister?

A lot of people are saying he's a possible prime minister, and when you ask Iraqis, I really think that many Iraqis would elect Saddam himself if they thought Saddam would restore stability. Chalabi is someone who is seen as a strong guy, whatever else people think of him, and they think that he can muster, not just the political will but the military will as well.

He doesn't have any militias of his own, does he?

That's a really touchy subject. A lot of people would call his security apparatus a militia. He obviously does not.

I see. He had an alliance for a while with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, right? I guess he doesn't have that anymore.

He's had alliances with almost everyone. One of the interesting recent developments in Iraqi politics is that Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, through one of his spokesman, says he's not going to back any particular party in these next elections [December 15 for a new National Assembly], which should make it much more diverse, because covering the elections there last January, what I found, was people didn't really obviously sit down and think, "Well, who's the best candidate? What will he do for me?" If they thought about it at all, they automatically went to what Sistani believed would be good for them if they were Shiite.

What do you hear on the military and the security situation in Iraq? The headlines all suggest that it gets worse rather than better. The United States has been fighting battles up north at the Syrian border but it looks like the cities are open to terrorist attacks.

Well, near the Syrian border is part of that huge expanse of western al-Anbar province, which is fully one-third of the country and the coalition has never had enough troops there. Sometimes, they've only had several hundred American troops. What happens there is that, because they haven't had enough troops and because they've had to basically put out fires in places like Fallujah, they've pulled the troops to the places they've been needed more.

So, that's left a vacuum in cities throughout that area, in Haditha all the way up to the Syrian border. When the U.S. troops withdraw, there are no Iraqi troops, there are no Iraqi police in most of these places, there are no functioning governments. The insurgents come in and they stay, so what they're having to do is go back into the same cities that they launched raids and attacks in months previously, because the insurgents have come back when the United States forces have left. They simply do not have enough Iraqi forces to go into a city and leave the Iraqi forces there across the area.

The Syrian border is very interesting. It still remains a huge problem according to the military. Foreign fighters come across from Syria and it's in places like Husaybah near the Syrian border, where there has recently been fighting.

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria said today in a speech that Syria is not responsible for the border.

That's a huge border. The feeling among the military and intelligence analysts is not so much that Syria is actively sending these people across the border but that they could and should be doing more to stop them. One of the things that I've seen when I've been in towns near the Syrian border where they found passports of foreign fighters, is if you look at the routes they've traveled, they've all come through Damascus. Some of them come from Saudi Arabia, for instance, but Saudi Arabia will not let young men they think might be a threat go directly from Saudi Arabia to Damascus. So you see them flying to the Gulf then flying to Damascus and then coming across.

One last question: Let's talk about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who heads the terrorist group al-Qaeda in Iraq. What is he thought of in Jordan? Is he a popular figure?

No. We have to remember that Jordan, because it's a small, vulnerable country, has always struggled with being caught between Iraq and Israel. People there really yearn to have a stable life and jobs and it's essentially a moderate population. Having said that, Zarqawi is a product of that country and many people would say the fact that there is a huge economic gap between the rich and the poor there, as there is in most Arab countries, he will have some support for his ideas, if those ideas exist in the sense that there still is a lot of resentment there, as there is in other countries, toward Israel certainly, and toward the United States for propping up Israel. But that does not extend to supporting bombs that kill Jordanians at wedding parties.

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