From hilly Zarqa and nearby Salt, from Cairo, Damascus and distant points, young Arab fighters have slipped across the desert and into Iraq. If that shattered land now plunges into a religious war of Sunni against Shiite, will these ranks of foreign volunteers swell further?
Some here in his hometown hope more will follow Iraq's most notorious volunteer, Abu Mussab Zarqawi. But many hope not.
"We're all Muslims. We shouldn't fight each other," townsman Abu Salah, 50, told a reporter as he rushed into Friday prayers recently at the drab storefront Mosque of Omar, wedged between shops in the shadows of a narrow downtown street.
A curbside perfume peddler listening in said many young men from Zarqa have gone over the border to join the anti-U.S. insurgency. "But if it's civil war, they won't get involved," said Ashraf Abu Abdullah. "Instead, we in Jordan should help resolve it."
Hundreds of men were shedding their shoes for the service. A Sunni sheik's sermon blared from the mosque loudspeaker, an earsplitting screed against belly dancing on satellite television. As the faithful spread prayer rugs on the sidewalk, a young man approached, wearing the full beard of a devout Muslim.
"Yes, lots have gone in already," the long-robed Abdullah told the visitor, giving only his first name. "If there's civil war, lots more will go."
Why? he was asked. It's simple, he said: "For God."
Having heard enough, a plainclothes security agent then stepped out of the crowd and ordered the reporter to cease questioning mosque-goers one more symptom of official nervousness over the role Jordanians play next door in Iraq.
No one knows how many Jordanians and other foreigners have joined Zarqawi's al-Qaida in Iraq or other elements of the Sunni Muslim insurgency. A Saudi Arabian intelligence report, cited by researchers of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, estimates 3,000 of some 30,000 fighters are non-Iraqis. Algerians, Syrians and Yemenis predominate, it says.
Their importance outweighs their numbers. Foreigners are believed responsible for most of Iraq's shocking suicide bombings, and are openly trying to provoke war between the country's Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The sectarian antagonisms may deepen with Iraq's Oct. 15 constitutional referendum.
An all-out civil war in Iraq could further inflame Sunni extremists elsewhere. More militants among Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi sect, who practice an austere and radical brand of Islam, might try to aid Iraq's minority Sunnis.
"I'd expect the Saudis to get a lot of petitions from Wahhabists demanding that they get out of the way if young men want to go to Iraq and fight," said W. Andrew Terrill, a Mideast expert at the U.S. Army War College.
The Jordanians say they work hard to keep outside men and money both from Iraqi exiles in Jordan and Jordanian sympathizers from reaching the insurgency. Sixty-three people are now on trial in four cases in Jordan for allegedly recruiting for, financing or taking part in the Iraq insurgency, prosecutors say.
They include men arrested as they tried to slip back into Jordan from the turmoil across the border. Such U.S.-aligned regimes as Jordan's and Saudi Arabia's worry that "returnees" from Iraq would soon turn their newfound military skills against their home governments.
The Saudis report stopping more than 60 apparent would-be insurgents from crossing over into Iraq in one recent six-month period. Egyptian authorities have pulled young men from Jordan-bound ferries, on suspicion they were headed for Iraq.
When the U.S. military invaded in 2003, busloads of Iraqi exiles and some Jordanians drove into Iraq from Jordan to join the defense. As the anti-U.S. insurgency grew, Jordanian newspapers called it "al-Muqawama al-Sharifah" the honorable resistance.
But such phrases are vanishing from news reports, and some see disillusionment setting in, including in Salt, another Jordanian city that, like Zarqa, has sent fighters to Iraq.
"At first the propaganda worked on a few young men here," shopkeeper Mohamed Dabbas, 28, said over coffee at a Salt cafe. "But after the losses in Iraq, and the stories about what was going on there, they're not so ready to die."
The stories of endless carnage of innocent Iraqi civilians killed by Zarqawi's bombers have repelled many Arabs.
"Saddam Hussein, bin Laden, Zarqawi and whoever thinks like them have set back the Muslim nation 2,000 years!" complained Mohamed Arabiyat, 50, a relative of one young man from Salt who died in the Iraq conflict.
A leading regional scholar believes most young Arabs willing to die in Iraq are already there. "I don't think the reserves of the extremist Islamist groups are very strong any more," said Mohamed el-Sayed Said of Egypt. But others believe Sunni-Shiite bloodletting, an Iraq conflict between Islam's rival branches, may awaken old hatreds and replenish the ranks.
"There are lots of ignorant people who'll want to aid the Sunnis against the Shiites," Mohamed Mehyar, a longtime defense attorney for Islamic militants, said in Amman, Jordan's capital.
Mehyar believes the clergy will caution people, however, that it's "haram" forbidden for Muslim to kill Muslim.
In Zarqa, where the minarets of countless mosques rise above the hill-hugging cityscape, people do look to their Sunni sheiks for guidance. And those clerics seem not to view Iraq's violence as "legitimate `jihad'," or holy war, Walid Abu Suwan, 30, said in his housewares shop, near Zarqawi's childhood home.
"I'm convinced and people in this neighborhood are convinced that jihad must be started by fatwa," that is, an edict from the clergy.
In Saudi Arabia last November, 26 prominent clerics did sign such a fatwa, conferring legitimacy on the Iraqi resistance. But in Zarqa, the young merchant said, "there's still no fatwa" at least not yet.
Copyright © 2005 The Associated Press