By Suleiman al-Khalidi
AMMAN, Feb 27 (Reuters) - U.N. relief bodies have begun setting up makeshift camps near Jordan's eastern border with Iraq to accommodate refugees fleeing a possible U.S.-led war, officials and diplomats said on Thursday.
Border officials and relief workers confirmed to Reuters infrastructure was being set up for thousands of tents close to the eastern border crossing of Karameh, a few miles from Iraq's Treibeel border post.
Jordan's Prime Minister Ali Abu al-Ragheb said on Thursday talks were advanced with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on running the camps.
But he stressed the two camps envisaged would not pave the way for a large-scale influx of Iraqi refugees into the country.
"I have to stress that Jordan will not accept large numbers of refugees as it has in the past...Jordan has suffered from this a lot," Abu al-Ragheb told reporters.
Officials say Amman would close its borders to any mass influx, and has told relief agencies a large wave of refugees would strain its meagre resources.
The UNHCR, which spearheaded relief efforts for two million Iraqi refugees during the 1991 Gulf War, has forecast that if there is a war, 600,000 Iraqis could flee abroad, with about half going to Iran, and the rest to Turkey, Syria and Jordan.
Officials say the two camps would cater for at most 100,000 refugees and that nearly half that number could be non-Iraqis living in Iraq, including Sudanese, Egyptian and Asian labourers seeking passage to their home countries through Jordan.
Jordan received almost two million refugees during the 1991 Gulf War, mostly Asian workers and Arab expatriates who fled Kuwait during Iraq's invasion of the Gulf state.
MONTHS OF WRANGLING
The decision to allow the border encampments comes after months of wrangling with the UNHCR over the financial and logistical terms of setting up camps inside Jordan.
Diplomats say it is a retreat from an earlier public position that the kingdom would only lend logistical aid to relief bodies who plan to set up camps inside Iraq.
"We want to help any country that has citizens in Iraq to get its nationals out through Jordan," Abu al-Ragheb said.
The contingency plan envisages tough policing to prevent refugees seeking asylum and only 72 hours stay for refugees in transit as flights home are arranged, a border official said.
He told Reuters thousands of ordinary Iraqis were turned back in the last few weeks. Jordan is one of a handful of countries that still requires no visa for Iraqis to enter.
But hundreds of well-to-do Iraqis who come for business dealings or plan to invest in the kingdom have been welcomed with their families. Many have rented accommodation in anticipation of staying for the duration of any conflict.
Pro-Western Jordan has allowed a number of U.S. and Western non-governmental organisations to set up base in the country.
They include a consortium of large U.S. agencies such as the International Medical Corps, Mercy Corps, Save the Children and World Vision.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet