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Jordan says 900 US troops boost defense in country

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AMMAN, Jordan — Some 900 U.S. military personnel, including dozens staying on from joint military drills, are in Jordan to bolster its defense and prevent the Syrian civil war from spreading across its border, Jordan's prime minister said Saturday.

It was the first time a Jordanian official disclosed publicly the numbers of U.S. troops in the Arab kingdom, sent there in recent weeks for military exercises and other deployments.

Abdullah Ensour told reporters Saturday that 200 of the personnel were experts training Jordanians to handle a chemical attack. The remaining 700 are manning a Patriot missile defense system and F-16 fighter jets which Washington deployed this month in case the Syrian war worsens.

"The number of U.S. forces in Jordan is small and not intended to be in preparation for a war on Syria," Ensour said.

Jordan is concerned its larger northern neighbor would use chemical weapons against Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and other neighboring countries, or that the stockpile may fall into the hands of al-Qaida or other militants if Syria's President Bashar Assad loses control.

Jordan hosts the largest number of more than a half million displaced Syrians, with an equal number sheltered in Turkey and Lebanon.

Earlier this month, Washington relocated one or two patriot missile batteries to Jordan from an unspecified country in the Persian Gulf, and also deployed a squadron of 12 to 24 F-16 fighter jets.

The deployment coincided with annual military exercises, dubbed Eager Lion 2013, which wrapped up earlier this week. Supervised by the U.S., the drills brought together more than 8,000 forces from 19 countries.

Ensour said Jordan was caught between a rock and a hard place in the Syrian crisis, which began in March 2011 with peaceful protests and later plunged into civil war.

"If the war continues, it's a problem, and if it ends with the collapse of the regime, we also have a problem," he said, adding that the fall of Assad's regime would leave a "vacuum, whereby attacks and conflicts would persist."

"This is why we have been calling for a political solution to the Syrian crisis," he added.