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Jordan stands firm: Ambassador Karim Kawar vows to stay course despite bombings
The Washington Diplomat / January 2006

By Larry Luxner

Unlike nearly every other ambassador in Washington — who thinks he or she has the most difficult job on Earth — Jordan's Karim Kawar isn't complaining.

"My job is one of the easiest in Washington, because I represent His Majesty [King Abdullah II]," he said. "We have all open doors and unlimited access to the Bush administration. Congress has been very supportive as well, in both chambers and across the aisle. We have excellent relationships with both parties, the institutions and the think tanks."

In fact, U.S. support for the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is stronger than ever these days, in the wake of the triple suicide bombings that killed 60 people at three Western-based luxury hotels in Amman last November and made Jordanians realize they were no longer an oasis of calm in a region rocked by turmoil and bloodshed.

Immediately following the terrorist attack, President Bush and his wife Laura paid Kawar a visit to express their sympathies.

"This enemy must be defeated," Bush declared, as the ambassador stood at his side. Later, in a condolence book at the embassy, Bush wrote: "May God bless the people of Jordan during this difficult time. Please know the American people join you in prayer and spirit." Added the first lady: "And with love and sympathy to the people of Jordan."

Kawar noted that most of the bombing victims at the Radisson, Grand Hyatt and Days Inn hotels were Jordanians and Palestinians — not Americans or Israelis as the terrorists claimed to be targeting.

"The indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians cannot be justified at any cost, let alone walking into a wedding, where one family alone lost 16 members," he said. "These people may have had some support [among average Jordanians] before the attacks, but now they've lost all sympathy in Jordan and hopefully beyond Jordan."

Within hours of the carnage, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi —the Jordanian-born leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq — claimed responsibility, boasting on the terrorist group's website that he targeted the hotels because King Abdullah had allowed them to be "a backyard for the enemies of faith — the Jews and the crusaders."

But that only enraged most Jordanians, who poured out onto the streets of Amman in a massive, bitter protest against al-Zarqawi.

"They sought to divide a country and have the population turn against the government, but what they have done is unify our people behind the leadership of His Majesty," Kawar told the Washington Diplomat in a lengthy interview last month.

Even so, many Jordanians — including several victims' family members — refuse to accept that al-Zarqawi was really behind the blasts, insisting that Israel is to blame.

Kawar doesn't buy that argument.

"The bombers were Iraqi nationals who crossed into Jordan using forged passports. People were questioned right after the attack, but it doesn't take much to target three hotels. Those are public facilities. The fact they targeted Arabs attending a wedding doesn't reflect sophisticated planning on their part. In the past, we've foiled other attempts by al-Zarqawi and his group," including an April 2004 plot to blow up the U.S. Embassy and Jordan's General Intelligence Directorate headquarters, he said.

In the wake of the attack, 11 top Jordanian officials resigned, including the king's national security adviser. On Nov. 26, King Abdullah named Marouf al-Bakhit the country's new prime minister, replacing Adnan Badran.

In addition, strict new security measures were introduced. Among them is a law requiring Jordanians to notify the government before renting property to foreigners.

"We need to address security issues along the Iraqi border and increase the use of biometrics, more secure documents and better information management," he said, noting that al-Zarqawi "has been under our watchful eyes for years. We have been fortune in the past to have saved Jordan from such attacks. But this time they succeeded, and they needed to succeed only once. We have be successsful 100% of the time."

Kawar, 39, is one of the youngest members of Washington's diplomatic corps. A native of Amman, Kawar graduated from Boston College in 1987 with a degree in management, finance and computer science. At the age of 20, he established his first company and headed an umbrella group that encompassed 10 software and IT firms.

In 1999, he said, "I was an entrepreneur, minding my own business" when King Abdullah II asked him to serve on the 21-member Economic Consultative Council. Kawar was put in charge of "developing Jordan's blueprint for establishing a knowledge society."

He presented his credentials as ambassador in September 2002 and also serves concurrently as Jordan's envoy to Mexico.

For several years now, Jordan has been the darling of the Arab world in the eyes of U.S. policymakers — mainly because its pro-Western monarchy under the late King Hussein forged a peace treaty with Israel in 1994.

Despite its population of only 5.5 million, Jordan today is the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. aid in the world. The two countries are bound by a free-trade agreement that includes special Qualified Industrial Zones along the Israeli-Jordanian border. In order to be eligible for preferential treatment in the U.S. market, goods manufactured in the QIZs must contain at least 8% input from Israel, said Kawar, notig that "those QIZs have been the largest contributors to our trade with the United States."

In the meantime, ventures ranging from olive-oil exports to Rivage eye cream and Intel microchips have all benefitted from the Jordan-U.S. Business Partnership, a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"We see a promisinng future," he said. "Over the past seven years, under the leadership of King Abdullah, there has been significant investment in education. We see Jordan evolving into a knowledge society. There's have been huge strides in the privatization process. Our telecom sector is the only one in the whole Middle East that has been totally liberalized. Even in Israel it's not liberalized."

Kawar said the Jordanian economy has also boomed thanks to the war in Iraq, as companies hoping for a piece of the massive reconstruction business set up regional offices in Amman.

"Our economy has been growing at 7.7% a year," he said. "We have seen the poverty rate drop, as well as the unemployment rate," despite the presence of 1.2 million Palestinian refugees still living in camps.

Jordan is also home to 400,000 relatively wealthy Iraqi refugees who do not live in camps, but rather expensive apartments, hotels and villas.

"They've contributed to the surge in real-estate prices. We provide sort of a safety net for the region," he said, adding that "we have to help the Iraqis rebuild their country, and we're not going to shy away from our responsibilities."

As such, the Jordanian government has undertaken the training of 35,000 Iraqi police officers over a two-year period. It's also helped train judges, lawyers, engineers, doctors and other professionals — but Jordan hasn't sent any soldiers to Iraq.

"Our position is that if the Iraqis ask us to contribute troops, we'll be obliged to do so But we think that will put the Iraqis in an awkward situation, if they accept troops from Jordan but turn down offers from other countries like Turkey. We believe neighboring states should not interfere in Iraq's internal affairs."

In the meantime, King Abdullah and his wife, Queen Rania, are speaking out against terrorism and al-Qaeda every chance they get.

"We are fighting this ideology at its roots," says Kawar. "These people have taken a skewed interpretation of the religious books ad they have developed their own ideology of hate. About a year ago, we issued the Amman message, in which we reassert Islam as a continuation of the Abrahamic tradition that has the same values as Judaism and Christianity. It nullifies the takfir ideology — in which someone like al-Zarqawi can call another person an infidel and justify the killing of innocent people."

Kawar rejects the notion that Jordan was targeted by al-Qaeda because of the country's embrace of the West and its ideas.

"We see today a struggle within Islam. Those radicals fighting the moderates — as witnessed in the Amman attacks — have killed and injured more Arabs and Muslims than people of any other faith."

The ambassador also discounts the theory that Jordan was singled out because of the relatively warm relationship it maintains with Israel.

"Saudi Arabia has also been targeted by those ideologies, and they don't have a peace treaty with Israel," he said. "Jordan was targeted because it is an open society. It's because we are challenging them in their ideology, exposing them for what they really are. Regardless of what you do, you cannot please them. Those people won't give in to anything you do. What we need to do is uproot their supporters."

He noted that al-Zarqawi's own family has denounced him, as has the larger Beni Hassan clan to which his family belongs.

In the meantime, says Kawar, Jordan's peace with Israel can serve as a catalyst for bringing about a comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But recent events, such as Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the establishment of a border crossing on the Egyptian-Gaza frontier give him cause for optimism.

"This is the first time the Palestinians have taken control of a border crossing. I see this as a victory towards peace," he said. "Once you establish a precedent, you can build on it. The withdrawal from Gaza and the dismantling of settlements is also a victory toward peace. We're looking at final status issues, including Jerusalem. Otherwise, it will not be a sustainable peace."

Asked if average Jordanians support their country's peace with Israel, Kawar doesn't hesitate.

"Yes, the do," he responded. "The peace treaty was ratified by our elected parliament. But when it comes to how Israel is perceived in the Arab world and specifically in Jordan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still the predominant conflict. There are issues that continue to worry us, such as the continued expansion of settlements, the construction of the wall of separation in the West Bank and the ongoing violations of the basic human rights of Palestinians such as daily curfews and roadblocks."

Nevertheless, Kawar says he's encouraged by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's formation of a new political party, Kadima, which explicity calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

"It was well-known that Sharon wasn't getting along with the hardline Likudniks, and was rumored that he would split from his party. But certainly those who know Sharon from his earlier days are surprised. Sharon has redefined the political center in Israel by bringing in those new centrists from both parties."

He added: "A Palestinian state has to be a viable, contiguous state. It cannot look like Swiss cheese. I always tell my Israeli friends that we have to help Palestinians see that it's not greener on the other side of the fence, that by creating a prosperous Palestinian state they will have something worth living for. An impoverished Palestine will not contribute to Israel's security."

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