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World

Jordanians Weigh Risks And Rewards Of Being A Close U.S. Ally

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The desert kingdom of Jordan is on the frontline of the civil war in Syria, taking in more than a million refugees. It has also joined the U.S.-led coalition, carrying out airstrikes against ISIS militants. American aid to Jordan is now more than a billion dollars a year, and Congress is looking at adding Jordan to an exclusive list of nations allowed to get expedited arms sales. NPR's Middle East correspondent Emily Harris visited recently. She found Jordanians weighing the risks and rewards of being a close U.S. ally.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: A 20 minute drive from Jordan's capital, Amman, troops from an Arab Gulf country, their weapons drawn, hurry into a pretend village.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

HARRIS: Tucked among the tall, tan cliffs of an old quarry, the King Abdullah Special Operations Training Center is known for its high-tech effects and realistic simulations.

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HARRIS: Troops from all over pay to train here. It opened five years ago, a crown jewel of U.S. military support for Jordan.

AREF ALZABEN: The U.S. have contributed 100 million U.S. dollar.

HARRIS: One-hundred million dollars was about half the bill. Center director, Jordanian Brigadier General Aref Alzaben, says this illustrates a close military relationship that he wants to be even closer. When he led Jordanian soldiers in Afghanistan, they weren't allowed some advanced U.S. technology.

ALZABEN: The U.S. soldier, when he puts night vision is helmet, he can see, like, 500 meters clear. But when it comes, like, for Jordanian soldiers, sometimes he can see for 100, 200. But they say they have the same threat.

HARRIS: Now Jordan is part of the new U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, the Islamist group operating near Jordan's borders. Member of Parliament Mustafa Hamarneh says streamlined arms sales would reward Jordan's King Abdullah.

MUSTAFA HAMARNEH: He is seen as their - one of their best allies in the region. And he basically does what the Americans want him to do in the region, and he's comfortable with that. And he gets all the aid he wants now, for that.

HARRIS: Sometimes, just on loan. Last year, after joint military exercises, the U.S. left extra F-16 fighter jets, a Patriot missile battery and a thousand U.S. troops in Jordan, as tensions in the region rose. A former Department of Defense official says Jordan knows how to please Capitol Hill.

DAVID SCHENKER: We used to call them, when I worked in the Pentagon, the new Israel because they were so good at getting what they needed.

HARRIS: David Schenker is now with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. On a recent trip to Jordan, he heard familiar complaints that the kingdom is fighting ISIS because the U.S. and Israel say to. He worries this now feeds a militant message.

SCHENKER: The kingdom right now is arresting hundreds of suspected members of ISIS. And eventually, these cells - what they call, you know, sleeper cells in the region - somebody will succeed in getting off a terrorist attack in the kingdom. And then, you know, the word will be that, you know, this happened because we participated in the coalition.

HARRIS: The arrests take place under Jordan's new antiterrorism laws, which the group Human Rights Watch says are too vague and could be used to stifle legitimate expression. Jordanian analyst Labib Kamhawi says support inside Jordan for Islamist groups, including ISIS, stems from limits on political freedom and high taxes, prices and unemployment.

LABIB KAMHAWI: So you have all these generations of young Jordanians, unemployed - unemployed with no prospect for employment. And this is why you see the spread of pro-ISIS tendencies.

HARRIS: Jordan does have a problem with many young men leaving to fighting for Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq. But like the U.S., Jordan says it has no intention to send regular ground troops to fight on the other side, Contributing intelligence, some bombing runs and training instead. Emily Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.