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Iraqis seek refuge from violence in Jordan's capital

AMMAN, Jordan—Retired doctors in the dapper black hats of old Baghdad slap down dominoes in smoky cafes. Construction cranes operated by Iraqi workers dot the skyline.

And when the dancing begins after midnight at Cafe Sultan, a sweaty singer gives a shout-out to Iraqi patrons, calling them by their home towns: "Where are you, Fallujah? Where are you, Karbala? Where are you, people of Baghdad?"

The answer is: Amman.

More than 600,000 Iraqis have fled the war next door to settle here, leaving behind their homeland's civil war. Shiites and Sunnis mingle easily, filling this city's downtown streets with the guttural dialect of Iraq, not the sounds of gunfire.

When President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meet here Wednesday and Thursday, they'll do so in the midst of a thriving community that has everything the Bush administration promised Iraqis before the beginning of the war: a flourishing press, building contracts, a renaissance of civil society and a vibrant arts community.

Lower-income refugees struggle to get by in dreary downtown apartments, overstaying their visas for peaceful nights, while middle-class Iraqis say life here is better than at home.

"I bought a house better than my house in Baghdad. My daughter is in a very good school here," said Ammar Elias, a Christian businessman sharing breakfast with a Sunni friend at an Iraqi diner. "Of course, I miss my country, but what can I find in my country now? When I look at Iraq, I cry."

Both men reached for tiny cups of ultra-sweet, dark tea made the Iraqi way. It was a chilly day in Amman; the weather made Elias and his friend long for a winter breeze off the Tigris River.

"This is Baghdad now," Elias said with a rueful smile. "I've been here three years, and I don't think I've talked to a Jordanian. My street is all Iraqi, my neighbors are all Iraqi. I don't feel like I'm in Amman."

Even the restaurant where they sat, Qaddouri, is a replica of one nestled along the riverfront on famed Abu Nawas Street in Baghdad. After it was blown up in a car bombing last year, the owners rebuilt in Amman. Just like the original, the new one opens at 3 a.m. to serve hordes of homesick Iraqis baggila, a traditional breakfast dish of fried eggs, seasoned bread and fava beans.

The only ingredient missing, said manager Imad Hamdi, is the pure Iraqi cooking oil that Jordanian customs officers poured out at the border.

"We wish all these places were still in Baghdad, but this is our fate," Hamdi said. "The smell of Baghdad, the taste of it, that's what I miss. The palaces, the rivers, the history. It was special."

The Iraqi consul in Amman puts the number of Iraqis here at 600,000, climbing to 800,000 when school is out and more families arrive for summer. At least that many more have fled to Syria, Egypt and other countries, testament to the viciousness of the war in their homeland. The departed represent about 5 percent of Iraq's population of 27 million.

A Human Rights Watch report released ahead of Bush's visit called on the president to help Jordan cope with the stream of refugees to prevent "sending them back into mortal danger." Jordan hasn't issued a formal plea for help, but strains are evident: Immigration officials have stepped up enforcement against Iraqis who've overstayed their visas, leading Human Rights Watch to ask Jordan to grant them refugee status.

The Iraqi community in Amman ranges from destitute families displaced by fighting to affluent professionals who fear kidnappings.

"Amman is the best place for people to express what they really think about politics," said Ibrahim Salama, head of the Amman office of Iraq's al-Rafidein television channel.

"The Iraqis here in Amman are the ones Iraq needs most—doctors, scientists, professors," said Haj Ali al-Qaisi, an Iraqi who heads a human rights group called the Association of Victims of American Occupation Prisons.

In Baghdad, he said, U.S. officials harassed him because of his organization's name, and gunmen barred civilians from giving testimony. In Amman, however, a large poster on his office wall shows a boy throwing his sandals at a U.S. tank. The caption reads, "They said we'd receive them with flowers."

Two men recently released from prisons in Iraq spilled their stories to al-Qaisi. He never asked their sectarian affiliation.

"Alas, the Iraqis here have the harmony that's missing there," he said.

Many Jordanians regard the influx of refugees with wariness. They complain of Iraqis snatching up the good jobs, driving up housing prices, dragging war into their stable host country. They're quick to point out that last year Iraqi suicide bombers blew up three luxury hotels in Amman, killing at least 56 people and wounding 100 others.

Entrepreneurs, however, regard Iraqis as a growing market that's injected new life into Jordan's economy. Downtown Amman is now peppered with storefronts that evoke Iraq, many of them copies of shops found in Baghdad.

The green-and-white Iraqi Airways office has a new facade. Imported Iraqi dates sell for 10 times the price at home. Phone cards are named after Iraq's ancient Sumerian civilization. Iraqi newspapers and TV stations keep offices here.

One of Amman's hottest new nightspots is Tigris, an elegant bar with a three-page wine list and an Iraqi folkloric ensemble. Foreign diplomats schmoozed with Iraqi and Jordanian officials at the gala grand opening last year. Asaad Mohammed, the Basra, Iraq-born manager, laughed as he recalled how some non-Iraqi guests thought "Tigris" was an animal.

He smiled as the guitar notes drifted across the restaurant and took him back to the country he's left behind.

"When you hear these songs, you remember the life you used to lead, the good old days," Mohammed said. "Practically, we've started new lives here, with shops and restaurants and companies. But if you talk about feelings, 99 percent of me is still in Iraq."

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(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Alaa Baldawy contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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