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Jordan crackdown targets Iraqi illegals

AMMAN, Jordan — White police vans with bars on the windows cruise almost daily through Amman's industrial zone, where factories churn out everything from detergent to candy.

The first Iraqi worker to spot a police patrol rings a makeshift alarm, and others scatter to avoid getting caught working without valid residency permits.

"Everyone here is so afraid," said a 35-year-old secretary, who refused to be identified because she is here illegally herself. "If they get caught, they will be sent back to Baghdad for sure."

Fearing war with the United States, more Iraqis are trying to flee to neighboring Jordan. But the reception in Jordan, never warm, has become markedly less friendly, according to displaced Iraqis, aid workers and U.N. officials.

Border controls are being tightened, and residency permits shortened, they say; raids and identity checks in factories and Iraqi neighborhoods are being stepped up; and people here illegally — especially military-aged men — are being deported, they say.

Government officials say they are simply enforcing rules to crack down on illegal workers in Jordan, where the unofficial jobless rate reaches 25 percent.

Yet the focus is clearly on Iraqis, observers say.

"In the current situation, the government is obviously on its toes," said Sten Bronee, the U.N. refugee agency representative in Jordan.

"There are indications that people are not being allowed into Jordan like they used to be. Increasing numbers of Iraqis are being detained pending deportation."

Although Iraq recently canceled the departure tax that prevented many from leaving, it is not allowing men of military age to go, said Jamal Hattar, director of the Caritas aid group in Jordan.

In addition, young men caught in Jordan illegally are reportedly being sent directly back to Iraq now instead of being given the option to go somewhere else where a visa is not required, such as Yemen, he said.

"Being a next-door neighbor, it's a very sensitive issue to accept asylum seekers here," Hattar said. "This would imply that you are working against Iraq."

Jordan, a key U.S. ally in the region, strives also to stay on good terms with Iraq, which provides it with free or discounted oil and buys more of its exports than any other single country.

Moreover, Jordan is afraid of being overwhelmed by a new tide of Iraqis, on top of the estimated 350,000 who have arrived since the 1990-91 Gulf War and stayed, most of them illegally.