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US diplomat's death rattles a rare Mideast haven for Westerners

The assassination of a USAID official was the first of its kind in Jordan.

Foreigners prepared to hunker down in Jordan after a senior American diplomat was gunned down in a hail of bullets in the first-ever assassination of a Western diplomat in Jordan. At schools where Western children are taught in their native languages, parents rushed to retrieve their sons and daughters, and roads around the American Embassy were cordoned off as tanks guarding the fortress-like building practiced their drills.

Jordanian officials said it was too early to say what had motivated the killing, but that the fingers all pointed at Al Qaeda. "It's a message that Al Qaeda will haunt Americans anywhere," said a Jordanian official. "And it's their message to Jordan that they're ready to undermine US allies in the region."

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The United States has poured money into the desert kingdom since it signed a peace treaty with Israel on Oct. 26, 1994, almost exactly nine years ago.

This year the US has increased aid to the kingdom to $450 million, making Jordan the fourth-largest recipient of American aid. Aside from $150 million in military assistance, the bulk was filtered through the office of Lawrence Foley, the diplomat slain Monday. Mr. Foley was a senior administrator for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which works to improve water resources, health care, and economic opportunities for Jordan's residents.

The US Embassy insisted Monday that it had no plans to send home nonessential staff. But some members of the 3,000-strong American community in Jordan noted that evacuation plans had already been drawn up in the event of US military action against Iraq, and were anxious to start the process.

"The harder it gets to hit the big guys, the softer the targets get," said one American collecting his children at a foreign-language school. "We were preparing to head home when the war started. Now it's just come a bit sooner."

The attack on Foley prompted Jordanian officials to worry that Americans might lose confidence in the kingdom.

"This attack, regardless of its motives, is an attack on the country and its national security," said Information Minister Mohammed Adwan, announcing the assassination.

But on the streets, Jordanians shrugged their shoulders and spoke of the inevitability of politically motivated killings as the US gears up to attack their neighbor, Iraq.

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"Is one death worse than another?" asked a Jordanian engineer, who, like most of the country, is of Palestinian origin. "In Palestine, America's allies are killing dozens of our people a week."

Until the killing, US diplomats hailed Jordan as an Arab model of a successful transition towards globalization.

As a result of a privatization program and the establishment of free trade zones with Israel, US imports from Jordan had soared from $7 million in 1997 to nearly $500 million this year, propelling the United States ahead of Iraq as Jordan's prime trading partner.

But many Jordanians feel alienated by the rush westwards, symbolized by the crop of McDonald's logos that loom over the city. One of the largest soars over the capital's commercial district abutting Mecca Street, close to Foley's house. And many feel that their country – which is the traditional buffer between Iraq and Israel – has been bought.

"In the past we were ruled by men of religion," says Mohammed Duwaik, a prominent Amman defense lawyer, who expects the authorities to begin rounding up the usual Islamist suspects. "Now soldiers and businessmen have taken their place."

The attack on Foley occurred just as Mr. Duwaik was preparing to defend 10 men, including one who had recently returned from Afghanistan, charged with plotting to assassinate Americans jogging in the Abdund neighborhood, where the US Embassy is located.

The prosecution told the court that when their plans were aborted, they opted to launch attacks inside Israel.

"There's a hatred of the United States," says Duwaik, while tuning into reports of the killing of the diplomat broadcast on Arab satellite television. "It's up to the United States to turn its actions from those of an enemy to those of a friend."

The attack comes as the government seeks to crack down on civil opposition to its pro-US stance. On Saturday, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood demanded that Jordan end its military exercises with the US, which have been ongoing since August.


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