Jordan's Islamists say new PM must step down

Jordan's powerful Muslim opposition on Wednesday urged the country's newly appointed prime minister to step down, calling him the wrong person to introduce democratic reforms and tackle deepening poverty and unemployment.

Also, Jordan's King Abdullah II made a surprise visit to an impoverished northern village. It was his first such trip since the unrest broke out in neighboring Egypt, and appeared to be an attempt to defuse popular anger over the country's troubles and portray himself as a caring leader.

On Tuesday, Abdullah named Marouf al-Bakhit prime minister, bowing to public pressure from protests inspired by those in Egypt against President Hosni Mubarak.

Hamza Mansour, a leader of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, rejected al-Bakhit's nomination, saying he "is not the right person for the job."

"Al-Bakhit is a security man, a former army general and ex-intelligence official. He doesn't believe in democracy," Mansour told The Associated Press. Instead, he said the country needs "a national figure who can tackle Jordan's serious economic and political crisis."

Jordan is grappling with a soaring foreign debt estimated at $15 billion, an inflation rate which has swelled by 1.5 percent to 6.1 percent in December and high unemployment and poverty rates — set at 12 and 25 percent respectively.

Mansour also criticized al-Bakhit for signing off on Jordan's first casino, which the Brotherhood strongly opposed on the grounds that it violated Islamic principles and encouraged vice. The project was later canceled.

On Tuesday, King Abdullah, facing public pressure inspired by the revolt in Tunisia and Egypt, sacked his government and named al-Bakhit as prime minister, ordering him to move quickly to boost economic opportunities and give Jordanians a greater say in politics.

Al-Bakhit, 63, is a former ambassador to Israel who supports strong ties with the U.S. and Jordan's peace treaty with Israel — policies which the Brotherhood and the leftists oppose. The fundamentalist Brotherhood advocates the introduction of strict Islamic sharia law, close relations with Muslim nations and Israel's destruction.

Many Jordanians see al-Bakhit as a tough enforcer of security, which goes against their calls for greater democratic freedoms. Al-Bakhit is an ex-army major general who also served as the chief of Jordan's National Security Agency in the last decade. He is credited with maintaining Jordan's stability following the 2005 triple attacks on hotels in Amman, claimed by al-Qaida in Iraq.

At a small protest Wednesday near al-Bakhit's office, leftist activist Hadi Khitan said al-Bakhit was no different from deposed Prime Minister Samir Rifai.

"We want to change government policies, not change prime ministers," he said. "We want a real political change and this message should reach the king."

King Abdullah made his surprise visit to the northern village of Ghoret Qassim near Mafraq, 120 kilometers (75 miles) away from Amman.

State television showed Abdullah shaking hands with jubilant men and children as women ululated. Mobs surrounded the monarch as he walked through the village unescorted. In one clip, Abdullah was shown sitting on a floor mattress, taking notes of people's grievances, which included improved sewage and roads.

"I promise you I will do my best to help improve the infrastructure in this village," he said to loud applause.


Associated Press writers Jamal Halaby and Sameer N. Yacoub in Amman contributed reporting.