AMMAN, Jordan -- "Welcome to the Berlin of the Middle East," a senior U.N. official told me.
Just as Berlin was a city where the tensions of the Cold War played out, so present-day Amman is a city where the tensions of present-day Iraqi politics are writ small. Indeed, this hilly Jordanian capital has become the crossroads where Western and Arab officials hold open and secret meetings with Iraqis, in fruitless efforts to prevent that country's descent toward disaster. Foreigners fear travel to Baghdad, so Iraqis come to neighboring Jordan instead.
Amman also has become Baghdad West, where hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have taken refuge. Many are rich Sunni supporters of Saddam who know they have no future in Iraq. Their children wander Amman's glitzy Mecca Mall [which many Jordanians now call "Iraqimall"]. Sixty percent of real estate sold in Amman last year is said to have been bought by Iraqis.
Iraqis congregate in clusters in the smoky lobby of the posh Four Seasons Hotel to discuss the latest news from home, dialing up Baghdad on their cell phones. Training courses are held in Jordan for Iraqi police -- and for Iraqi election monitors.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi came here to try to entice prominent Sunni Iraqis-in-exile to abandon their community's widespread boycott of Iraq's elections. He failed.
In Amman, a visitor quickly senses the tensions that threaten to tear Iraq apart.
Jordan, like Iraq's Arab other neighbors, is a nation of Sunnis, the Muslim mainstream. Sunnis and Shiite Muslims both revere the Koran, but they disagree over who should have been the rightful successor to the prophet Muhammad. Iraq's Arab neighbors were comfortable with the rule of Saddam Hussein, who enabled Iraq's 20 percent Sunni minority to dominate its 60 percent Shiite population.
But now that Iraqi Sunnis have lost their power -- and are clustering in Amman -- a paranoia about Shiites is rising in Jordan. In the lobby of the Four Seasons, Sunni Iraqis -- and some secular Shiites -- relate their fears that a Shiite takeover will lead to a reign of ayatollahs in Iraq.
Never mind that Iraq's Shiite religious establishment doesn't embrace the philosophy of its co-religionists in Iran, and rejects the Iranian idea that clerics should rule, an idea introduced by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. Never mind that Iraqi Shiites are Arab, not Persian.
Jordan's King Abdullah said recently in Washington that 1 million Iranians had already entered Iraq to vote in Iraqi elections. When I suggested to a Jordanian official that this figure seemed very exaggerated, he insisted that it was an understatement.
One would think that this Shiite scare would have driven Iraq's Arab neighbors to prod Iraqi Sunnis to take part in elections. If Sunnis joined together with secular Shiites and Sunni Kurds in an elected Iraqi parliament, they could prevent any trend toward Shiite religious domination. But a meeting of senior officials from Iraq's neighbors held last week in Amman accomplished little.
Iraq's neighbors seem unwilling or unable to mediate in Iraq.
"All Arab kings are scared of Khomeinism, because it doesn't accept monarchy," suggests Juan Cole of the University of Michigan. Cole, an expert on Shiism, says, "They are scared it will spill over [to their countries]." Arab Gulf states fear that the Iraqi experience may radicalize their sizable Shiite populations.
Whatever the reason for their fears, the Arab nightmare of Shiite dominance is helping destabilize Iraq.
"Now I can see a new vision in Jordan and in Arab countries," says Faiza al-Araji, an Iraqi engineer whose husband is Jordanian. "They support extremists [inside Iraq] because they are Sunnis."
The vivacious Araji is a Shiite running in Iraqi elections on a secular party list headed by a Sunni. She is married to a Sunni. Like many Iraqis, she recalls that -- until recently -- most educated Iraqis didn't identify themselves by religion. But this is changing.
"I tell people in Amman," says Araji, "that Shiites are a majority in Iraq, so why are they angry if Shiites get a majority of votes? They say, 'Nooo, Iraqi leaders must be Sunni."'
"After the [Iraq] war," she continues, over tea at the Four Seasons, "my Arab neighbor in Amman was kind and said, 'You are fighting occupation.' But now he says, 'You are Shia, and we won't let you take the Iraqi government.' He says, 'You love Iran more than you love Iraq.' I say, 'no, our priority is the unity of Iraq."'
X Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.