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Jordan Rejects ISIS Claim That Strike Killed American Hostage

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The group calling itself the Islamic State says a Jordanian airstrike yesterday killed a U.S. hostage - 26-year-old Kayla Jean Mueller of Arizona. U.S. officials say that there is no evidence to support the claim. Jordan calls the statement a propaganda stunt. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Amman where people are still staggered by the burning to death by ISIS of a captured Jordanian air force pilot.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Just hours after thousands of Jordanians from all political factions marched to demand that Jordan declare war on ISIS, the group released a statement saying a Jordanian airstrike had killed Mueller - a young American aid worker who was abducted in August 2013 in Aleppo. Officials in Amman said they're looking into the claim, but their initial response was to reject it as a stunt designed to blunt Jordan's fury over its slain air force pilot. The doubts were fueled by the ISIS statement itself, which included a photograph of a destroyed building it claimed Mueller was in, but no image of a body. In Prescott, Ariz., her family said in a statement they're concerned by the report, but still hopeful that their daughter is alive. If ISIS thought their display of brutality would force Amman to reconsider staying in the anti-ISIS coalition, so far the result has been just the opposite.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).

KENYON: Until this week, Jordan's King Abdullah struggled to convince his people that the fight against ISIS is Jordan's fight, too. But the horrific video of Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh burning to death in a cage stunned Jordan's divided population into a rare show of unity behind a single demand - revenge. Twenty-year-old Moatassem Hararsheh is from Zarqa, best known as the home of a past leader of ISIS's predecessor, al-Qaida in Iraq. But this young man says he wants nothing more than to crush ISIS, also known by its Arabic acronym DAESH.

MOATASSEM HARARSHEH: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: "Of course I'm ready to go fight DAESH, and it's not just me," he says. "All young Jordanian men will go and fight." That's all he can get out before his friends drown him out in pro-government chants.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).

KENYON: But military experts say ground attacks are unlikely with the possible exception of some kind of special operations effort. And there are doubts about how long this display of unity can last. Analyst Labib Kamhawi says soon enough the public will realize that demands to quickly destroy ISIS are unrealistic.

LABIB KAMHAWI: This cannot be done. Even the coalition's said it might take three years.

KENYON: In one of Amman's oldest restaurants, Marwan Shehadeh, a researcher into political Islam, says the king should be using this window of popularity to press longer-term solutions, recognizing that the problem he can deal with is the estimated 1,500 Jordanians going to fight in Iraq and Syria. Not to mention the even larger number of Jordanians at home that support groups like ISIS, also known as IS.

MARWAN SHEHADEH: The problem now there are between 8,000 to 12,000 supporters to IS and they have to give employment. They have to support youth in programs. They have also to cut the road of extremism ideology to reach youth.

KENYON: In the meantime, there are signs of another boost to the anti-ISIS military campaign. The United Arab Emirates stopped its air force from taking part in airstrikes after the capture of the Jordanian pilot in December. Now that Washington has positioned search and rescue crews in northern Iraq, closer to the battle space, the UAE may be about to rejoin the fight. Speaking in Munich yesterday, a State Department official said an announcement could come in a matter of days. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Amman, Jordan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.

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