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Guests, brothers -- not refugees

AMMAN // Since arriving here earlier this week, I've heard several estimates of the number of Iraqis living in Jordan.

At the Iraqi Embassy today, I was told the population is no larger than 200,000. The number used by the Jordanian government, which is based on a survey completed last year by the FAFO Institute for Applied International Studies of Norway, is between 450,000 and 500,000.

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Jordanian Foreign Minister Salaheddin Al-Bashir told me today that an internal government exercise indicated the number is closer to 600,000. The population of Jordan is 6 million.

"It's like having 30 million in the United States," Bashir said.

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However many they number, Jordan considers the Iraqis guests, not refugees. This small, water-poor country already is home to 2 million Palestinians, and the government has been reluctant to accept another refugee population.

"Having our Iraqi brothers in Jordan puts a significant challenge to our infrastructure and our public services," Bashir said. "We have done our best to make sure that we provide services to our Iraqi brothers in education and health through the general infrastructure and general services that serve our children. The schools and hospitals. But also that puts a burden on us."Bashir said the distinction between refugee and guest "does not affect the way that actually we deal with them. We extend all support and help and we are extremely sensitive about parallel institutions giving services to them because we would like to serve them as we serve our own in Jordan."

The government is sensitive about creating parallel institutions for Iraqis, as it has for Palestinians in the decades since the Palestinian flight of 1948, because officials don't want the Iraqis staying as long.

"We believe that the solution for this issue is for our Iraqi brothers to return to the country voluntarily," Bashir said. "To a prosperous, safe Iraq that also can give them an ability to have a fresh start and to become productive in their life and to build their country to its normal place in the international community."

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