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Jordan's king on Iraq: 'Time is of the essence'

King Abdullah II was interviewed Sunday in London.
King Abdullah II was interviewed Sunday in London.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Jordan's location adjacent to Iraq has always been an important factor in the U.S. ally's dealings with Baghdad.

Now that the U.S.-led coalition seems intent on helping Iraq develop a democratic government, CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour sat down with Jordan's King Abdullah II on Sunday to ask him how the Middle East has changed, so far, in the wake of the war in Iraq.

AMANPOUR: It's several weeks after the war has been over. Do you now believe that it was a just war?

ABDULLAH: Well, if you look at it from the Iraqi point of view, I think that the Iraqis are relieved that Saddam [Hussein] is no longer overshadowing Iraq. But the problem on the ground now is how much of a say do they have in their future and how quickly.

AMANPOUR: And what do you think about that? You know there's been all sorts of different ideas about how long the American troops will stay there, how long an American administration will govern that country. What is it that your country, you yourself, hope to see there?

ABDULLAH: Well, what we hope in Jordan, and I believe has been articulated by President Bush and [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair, would be that the Iraqis have a substantial say as quickly as possible and their substantial presence in an interim and then leading on to a future government. And time is of the essence.

AMANPOUR: And how realistically is that: two months of American presence? Two years? Something in between? What do you think?

ABDULLAH: Unfortunately, I think just the necessities on the ground, it's longer than everybody would like, simply because order needs to be restored and you're going to have to find the right Iraqis to be able to move into that position as quickly as possible, as well as getting the international community involved. The international community cannot step in tomorrow. And so I think there's some practicalities on the ground, unfortunately, that will make things take a little while longer.

AMANPOUR: Just to go back a little bit to before the war, you had pretty much made a judgment last summer that the [Bush] administration was bent on a course which led to military action. You also took a lot of representatives from Saddam Hussein. What was that dynamic?

ABDULLAH: Well, we had received several top Iraqi government officials. And in each case they had a message from Saddam to ask me what could they do to solve the problems with the international community and the United Nations.

And I was very explicit on what was required for them. But in each case, the government official that came to see me said. "Well I can't tell Saddam that." And so I said. "Well, why are you here in the first place? I mean, if you're not going to get the message back to the leadership, then you're wasting your time and you're wasting ours."

And so I began to see that on the Iraqi side there wasn't the vision to really deal with the international community to avert the crisis.

AMANPOUR: Let's say one of the issues that was one of the motives for war and that is the American alleged link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. There's a front page story in today's[Sunday's] "Sunday Telegraph" saying that files and papers in the looted [Iraqi] Ministry of Intelligence and intelligence headquarters suggests a direct link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. What is Jordan's position on that?

ABDULLAH: The way I think we believe is: Actually there was a link -- but it's probably a loose link. And don't forget that after 11th of September I presume that the Iraqis felt that they were looking for allies. And so I don't think it was a decision done by the top government. They had several intelligence organizations and so they wanted to reach out to people who had a common cause. So I don't think it's as heavy as is implied in the article today, but there was a -- there was a link.

AMANPOUR: You know, there's a lot of anxiety, let's say, in the Arab world about who's next. It was Iraq and who's going to be next. Do you -- do you feel that anxiety?

ABDULLAH: No, I mean there is an anxiety -- definitely in the Arab street -- and a lot of suspicion and frustration, but I don't believe that there's going to be somebody who's next on the list. If there's anything that's next on the list, it's the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and that would hotten all of us because that is the core issue, as you well know, of all the problems that we have in the Middle East.

AMANPOUR: The [so-called] road map [to Israeli-Palestinian peace] that the Americans say they will publish now that there has been a Palestinian Cabinet approved: When have you been told that the road map will be published?

ABDULLAH: Well there's -- we heard Wednesday as a possible date, and we want it, obviously, as soon as possible. But then I think we have to understand that it's just more than announcing the road map. OK. When the road map is announced, hopefully in the next several days, what happens after that? It needs action by the United Nations, by the [U.N., the European Union, Russia and United States,] particularly, and in specifics, the United States, to be able to start moving the new Palestinian government and the Israeli one towards discussions.

AMANPOUR: So there's been a lot of pressure on the Palestinians to have brought them to this position where [Palestinian Authority President Yasser] Arafat has agreed to have a new government, a new Cabinet, et cetera. And there are many people, certainly in the Arab world, who say that there needs to be a lot of pressure brought now, specifically on [Ariel Sharon,] the prime minister of Israel. Is that something that you believe President Bush will do, given how it's been going over the last couple of years that Ariel Sharon has been there?

ABDULLAH: Well, the problem obviously was Iraq was an excuse that sort of sidetracked a lot of people away from the Israeli-Palestinian issue. I know from my discussions with the American administration, and recently with Prime Minister Blair, that I think the president of the United States is committed to take whatever is needed to solve the problems between the Israelis and Palestinians, which would mean pressure on both sides to get their act together and move forward.

AMANPOUR: So you're confident that the president will use this enormous political leverage that he has right now?

ABDULLAH: I am very confident. And I believe, from what I've heard from our friends here in Europe and elsewhere in the world, that the Americans are strongly committed to this. So, yes, I'm very optimistic at this point.

AMANPOUR: Jordan itself, has made peace with Israel. You are a friend of the United States. You have got plenty of alliances that are strategic. But you must feel also what exists all over the Arab world, as far as many people can gather, and that is a deep feeling of anti-Americanism these days. Do you feel that?

ABDULLAH: You feel that throughout the Middle East and the same in Jordan, which has always been a very open-minded country towards everybody in the region and further afield. And the problem is ... that there are suspicions of why the Americans and the coalition went into Iraq. Obviously, the coalition forces say that they're there to liberate the Iraqis and give them a new future, but people throughout the Middle East are very skeptical.

The only way that you're going to make the right impression on the Arab street, and throughout the whole region, is to show if there's going to be some transparency in an effort to solve the Israeli-Palestinian [problem.] So there's a lot riding on the road map and how the American administration deals with it. If we don't move quickly, then everybody in the Middle East will say, "Well, this is just part of an agenda and there's a list of who's next.

AMANPOUR: What specifically do you think needs to be done as soon as possible? Once this road map is published, what are you looking to see happen?

ABDULLAH: Well, on the road map there is some particular steps that both the Palestinians and the Israelis need to do, as well as the Arabs. And we need to be able to get people talking to each other as quickly as possible. There is always an argument from the Israeli point of view that there's a security issue on the ground. And we need to get beyond that as quickly as possible, because as long as you keep security as an obstacle, you'll never be able to develop the political process. And so I think countries will have to come together to say, "All right, let us work with the security issue." But at the same time, the political process needs to be addressed and moved on.

AMANPOUR: The Jordanian foreign minister recently had an opinion piece in The New York Times in which he spoke about the Palestinian-Israeli issue and also Jordan's position on democracy in the Arab world. What is the onus on leaders, such as yourself, such as the other Arab countries, to finally take charge of, you know, your own destinies, your own futures and try to move beyond the current political situation right now? Do you feel that? And what steps do you think need to be done?

ABDULLAH: I think in Jordan -- and since you and I first talked about this almost four years ago -- that we needed to move in that direction as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, in the past three years we went from the incursion of the Israeli armed forces and the Intifada into the West Bank, which has still not been resolved, to the 11th of September, to the buildup of the war in Iraq. So it's been a very difficult three or four years.

But until we get a movement on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, it's difficult for other countries to be able to relax enough to move the process forward. We in Jordan are not waiting. We have elections coming up on the 17th of June and that'll get us back on the right track as quickly as possible. So we're not looking over our shoulder. I mean we're looking to the future and moving.

AMANPOUR: The whole notion of the so-called "democracy domino" theory, once Iraq goes then the rest of the Arab world will follow suit, democratic, pluralistic, et cetera ...

ABDULLAH: If you solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Because, again, the onus on security, on having to watch out because of the instability of the area will always be used as an excuse by leaders not to be able to develop democracy or freedom in the way that we all want. And I can see in Jordan, although we're moving in the right direction and we'd like to accelerate that pace with the cloud of the Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Arab issue hanging over our heads, we'll never have the secure, stable atmosphere, not only in Jordan, but throughout the whole Middle East to be able to develop in the way that we want.

AMANPOUR: And do you sincerely believe that if that massive hurdle is overcome and if there is really a viable two-state solution, as called for in the road map, and if it does happen, let's say by 2005 -- I think is what it calls for -- do you really see one country after the other falling into the fold of democracy?

ABDULLAH: Yes, and you know different countries will set different paces and democracy will mean different things to different nations. It has to be something that's homegrown. It can't be something that's imported, but opening up is the first step towards democracy. And when we move to a more stable Middle East, it'll be easier for societies to be able to do that.

And if Iraq is a tremendous example, we hope that we in Jordan who have had a democratic process for many years can set the pace. Then I think peoples around the Middle East will say. "Well, look, if they are doing it and they are successful models, we can follow in the same light."

AMANPOUR: So let's talk about Iraq: One of the things that people were quite worried about before the war was the breakup of Iraq into the three constituent parts. First of all, do you still have that worry?

ABDULLAH: Yes.

AMANPOUR: You do still?

ABDULLAH: Yes. And in particular, what we've been seeing in the south recently, the conflict inside the Shiite community, could spill over to create more of a breakup or fragmentation of Iraqi society. Also, as the American administrators come in, they need to give an Iraqi depth to an interim government. Because, at the moment, if you have just a north, central and a southern administrational areas, then by de facto you're actually creating three parts of Iraq. So you need a national character as quickly as possible.

AMANPOUR: Now, there have been warnings by the American administration to some of Iraq's neighbors, notably Iran, I think this last week, was told, "Butt out, no Islamic Republic of Iraq." Is that something that concerns you, the possibility of that? And what do you think the Iranians are looking at?

ABDULLAH: Well, the Iranians have always had a very good ability of reading the political map of the region, and they're very capable and very bright in that respect. There has been a [rapprochement], more I think, between the United States and Iran, to some extents, and between Iran and Europe, and I take that as a positive sign. But it is so tempting to get involved in the southern part of Iraq simply because of the historical religious sites, as you know, and because it's dominated by Shiite. So we'll have to see what the next couple of months bring us, but it is of a concern for all of us, I think.

AMANPOUR: Now, in terms of a leader for Iraq, where does that leader come from? There's been a lot of talk about Ahmad Chalabi of the INC [Iraqi National Congress] who, as you know, is supported very strongly by the Pentagon and certain of the leaders ...

ABDULLAH: Some people at the Pentagon.

AMANPOUR: ... some people at the Pentagon, important people, including the vice president of the United States. Is that a viable option? Chalabi, it has to be said, has been accused in your own country of fraud and embezzlement, sentenced in absentia to jail.

ABDULLAH: Yes, I don't particularly think I've ever met the gentlemen, but as you just said, he's wanted for embezzling people's funds in both Jordan, Lebanon. There's a case in the banking system in Switzerland. So he does have a big question mark over his head.

But if you look at a potential future for Iraq, I would imagine that you'd want somebody who suffered alongside the Iraqi people. This particular gentleman, I think, left Iraq when he was, I think, 11 or 7. And so, what contacts does he have with the people on the street? I would imagine that Iraqis would want a figure that they know that they have felt has suffered with them. And so there is a role for the opposition, but I think probably a minor one.

AMANPOUR: Are you surprised that there hasn't been a, whatever you want to call it, a transitional or an interim governing body set up already? For instance, in Afghanistan there was even before the war ended.

ABDULLAH: I would have thought that there would have -- they should have moved faster and the vacuum that's there at the moment is not helping the situation on the ground. But again, I mean we're not aware of the intricacies of what the coalition have been planning, so it's difficult for us to pass judgment. But I think that we're all a bit disappointed that things have not moved as quickly as they should have. But let's see what the next week will entail. If we don't see something in the next several weeks, then I think that the situation on the ground will start to get worse.

AMANPOUR: Just to end, what do you think will be the material benefit to Jordan and to the rest of the Arab world with Saddam Hussein gone?

ABDULLAH: Well, I think it gives Iraq an immensely capable country with a tremendous history, a chance for their people to get back on their own two feet. Iraq will be one of the main centers of gravity in the future of the Middle East. And so a capable, talented, strong nation moving in the right direction, I think, will be a comfort to all of us in the area. So, we have a lot of hope for the future of Iraq and a prosperous Iraq will be a prosperous region for all of us.


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