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Arab world shivers in unusual cold snap

Children play in the snow in Amman
Children play in the snow in Amman, Jordan, on Tuesday. Muhammad Hamed / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

The lone de-icing machine at Jordan's busy international airport worked frantically on Tuesday to clear planes for take off when a freak snowstorm blanketed this small desert country in a cold snap that has the whole region shivering.

Temperatures have plunged throughout the Middle East, dusting cities with unfamiliar snowfalls and sending residences scurrying for their blankets and jackets to cope with the near freezing temperatures in many places.

While streets in the Jordanian capital, Amman, were icy and dangerous and traffic immediately clogged, farmers have welcomed the much needed precipitation in the midst of an unusually dry winter that has damaged crops and sent food prices soaring. The desert kingdom depends heavily on winter rains for its agriculture.

Snowball-wielding children also welcomed the thick snowflakes and promptly began pelting passing motorists with their rare missiles.

"Heavy fog also hampered our efforts, but we expect the worst to come later today when the temperatures will drop below freezing," said an airport spokeswoman about the chaotic situation at the airport which has daily flights to Asia, Europe, North America and nearby Baghdad.

Worst cold front since 1964
Meteorologists in the region are calling it the worst cold front since 1964 and attributing it to a high pressure zone in northern Europe that is forcing cold air into the Middle East.

The 10-day old cold front has also destroyed fruits and vegetables in the Jordan Valley, compounding worries that food prices will jump higher amid concerns about skyrocketing fuel prices as the government removes subsidies on basic commodities.

In neighboring Syria, the dry winter had originally prompted President Bashar Assad to call for nationwide prayers for rain, but on Tuesday Damascus received its own blanket of snow, its first this winter.

The cold snap has caused extensive damage to the country's crops, the official Syrian news agency, SANA, reported, but relief could be in sight with forecasts of rain for Wednesday.

In normally sunny Egypt, rain and the near-freezing temperatures have shocked residents, many describing it as the coldest winter in years.

'Roads are crazy'
"It's definitely much colder than ever before," said Mohammed Ahmed, a shivering delivery driver who had to pilot his moped through Cairo's rain-slicked streets on Tuesday. "I'm drinking a lot of coffee and espresso to keep warm and alert because the roads are crazy."

The streets of normally arid Cairo, perched on the edge of the Sahara Desert, have no drains and the cold rain has created pools of standing water, bringing the city's already torturous traffic to a honking standstill.

Winter in Cairo usually consists of mild sunny days with the occasional clouds and chill wind, but the current cold snap combined with buildings designed for blazing summers have left everyone shivering. Cairenes have pulled out their winter jackets and wrapped their heads in scarves, though many continue to tramp through the wet and muddy streets in thin shoes or sandals.

Temperatures in Baghdad were even colder with the mercury dipping below freezing Tuesday morning, an increasingly common occurrence this month in a city whose average January temperatures are normally 13 Celsius (55 Fahrenheit). Snow even fell briefly for the first time in living memory in Baghdad on Jan. 11.

The cold has residents huddling around their kerosene heaters, even as worries mount about fuel shortages that could add to the battered populace's worries.