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Jordan girds for flood of Syrian refugees

AMMAN, Jordan, Aug. 1 (UPI) -- Resource-poor Jordan, bolstered by $2.5 billion in emergency U.S. aid, is being swamped by a swelling tide of refugees from war-torn Syria, deepening political unrest in the Hashemite kingdom.

Lebanon too is grappling with a refugee problem -- some 34,000 and counting -- that's aggravating its own sectarian rivalries. Cyprus, 150 miles away in the eastern Mediterranean, is preparing for a worst-case scenario of up to 200,000 Syrian refugees.

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The mushrooming humanitarian fallout from the 17-month-old revolution against the minority Alawite Muslim regime in Damascus that's now a civil war carries political as well as economic consequences for Syria's neighbors.

"The tremors from Syria are adding to rumbling over domestic issues" that include long-standing political and economic reform with which King Abdullah II is wrestling, observed British Middle East analyst Ian Black.

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"Jordan has managed the unrest of the Arab Spring more deftly than most ... Still, Abdullah's timetable for limited political change has not convinced his critics, whose expectations have risen as their criticism of the monarchy has become bolder."

Some 2,000 refugees a day are reported to be crossing from Syria in the largely desert, aid-dependent kingdom, threatening its delicately balanced stability as water and electricity shortages worsen by the day.

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The pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat cited a confidential Jordanian government report that estimated as many as 1 million Syrians could eventually make their way to Jordan.

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That will stretch Jordan's scant resources to the limit and escalate the brewing storm for political and economic reform that's increasingly targeting the Hashemite dynasty implanted by the British in the 1920s.

By most accounts Jordan, which has had to contend with at least four major waves of refugees from the Middle East's seemingly endless cycle of wars over the last 60 years, has taken in some 142,000 Syrians.

The kingdom, which lies on Syria's southern flank, opened its first camp for 5,000 Syrians Sunday at Zataari, 7 miles from the border. It has 2,000 tents but Andrew Harper of the U.N. refugee agency said the camp could well hold 100,000 in the next few weeks.

"If this fills up, we're in deep trouble," he warned. "That's a lot of people and represents a huge tragedy for Syria."

Turkey, on Syria's northern border, supports the rebels and has taken in some 80,000 refugees by U.N. count.

Ankara has also allowed the Free Syrian Army fighting the regime to set up its command center along the frontier, while Jordan has been reluctant to antagonize Damascus.

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Iraq, which has the longest border with Syria, finds itself in the bizarre position of having to take in refugees while for nine years its own citizens have been fleeing. In a bizarre twist, Iraqis who fled the violence at home after 2003 and went to Syria, are heading for the border again going the other way.

Baghdad refused to allow refugees in until about a week ago. So far, they've let in some 8,500, largely because of pressure from tribal groups whose lands straddle the border.

Jordan's sheltering 1.9 million Palestinian refugees plus some 1 million Iraqis who had fled their homeland after the 2003 U.S. invasion and years of bloodletting that followed.

Not all are refugees. Some came with sizeable financial assets and have bought homes and started businesses.

Jordan has been a haven for Arab refugees since the first Arab-Israel war in 1948-49, when some 600,000 Palestinians fled or were driven out by the Israelis when the state was founded.

Most ended up in Jordan. They were joined by another wave of several hundred thousand in the 1967 war.

These days, Palestinians make up an estimated 60 percent of Jordan's population of 6.5 million, which infuriates the Bedouin tribes who've lived in the region since before the British established Transjordan after World War I.

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The Bedouin, the bedrock of support for the Hashemite monarchy, are increasingly afraid that, with Israel stonewalling peace efforts, Jordan may become the independent state the Palestinians have been seeking for decades, while the occupied West Bank stays in Israeli hands.

Jordan was swamped again in 1990-91, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The Persian Gulf states expelled some 450,000 Palestinians because Yasser Arafat supported Saddam. Most of them trekked overland to Jordan.

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