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Jordan Plays Down Presence of U.S. Chemical-Response Troops

A Syrian rebel directs government personnel on Tuesday following capture of a checkpoint in the city of Idlib. Neighboring Jordan sought on Thursday to play down the presence of U.S. counter-chemical personnel within its borders amid mounting fears over the security of Syria’s lethal armaments (AP Photo/Ugarit News). A Syrian rebel directs government personnel on Tuesday following capture of a checkpoint in the city of Idlib. Neighboring Jordan sought on Thursday to play down the presence of U.S. counter-chemical personnel within its borders amid mounting fears over the security of Syria’s lethal armaments (AP Photo/Ugarit News).

Jordan on Thursday attempted to minimize the significance of the deployment there of U.S. personnel with specialized chemical-response training, according to an Associated Press report.

An unidentified high-ranking Jordanian official told AP that U.S. military personnel were in the country as "advisers, not troops." However, two high-ranking Pentagon officials said most of the positioned forces were specially trained soldiers. 

 The New York Times earlier this week reported the U.S. Defense Department had quietly deployed in excess of 150 "planners and other specialists" to Jordan. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta subsequently said the military advisers were there to help Amman strategize responses to a variety of contingency scenarios, including a chemical-weapons crisis.

The U.S. forces are in the Arab nation at the behest of Amman, which fears neighboring Syria might unleash chemical weapons in a conflict. The chemical-response troops are assisting the government in devising procedures to safeguard Jordanian noncombatants if there is a chemical strike, Jordanian officials said.

Jordan and other nations that border Syria are increasingly worried worsening violence in the country between armed opposition fighters and forces loyal to the Bashar Assad regime could lead to a decision by Damascus to renege on previous pledges and mount chemical attacks. Regional governments and a number of Western capitals are also concerned about the possibility of Syrian army security around chemical weapon sites being weakened to the point where local extremist groups have the opportunity to seize chemical warfare materials, such as mustard gas or sarin nerve agent.

Amman is leery of publicizing the presence of the U.S. troops, as it does not want to aggravate Damascus or arouse criticism from its own population and the broader Middle East.

Rumors are circulating of plans to launch a pre-emptive attack on Syria's chemical facilities should it appear that the regime is no longer able to protect the sites.

"There are dangers involved, and we have to ensure the safety of our country and the well-being of our citizens," the Jordanian official said. "We are benefiting from the experience of our allies as we prepare for the worst scenarios."

"Jordan and U.S. forces exchange visits regularly, and the presence of tens of their forces here is part of efforts to expand cooperation, exchange capabilities and protect regional stability," Jordanian Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah told AP.

U.S. military personnel are working out of a base not far from the Jordanian capital and are moving back and forth from the boundary with Syria. Their efforts include reconnaissance and preparing bilateral U.S.-Jordan armed forces exercises, according to an anonymous U.S. official.

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