Nearly two years ago, Akram Lezam risked arrest and almost certain imprisonment by sneaking out of Iraq without permission from Saddam Hussein's government. Leaving his home in southern Iraq, he hitched rides and walked through almost 200 miles of desert to reach the Jordanian border, all the while dodging Iraqi soldiers and border guards.
In Jordan he landed a job as a butcher, which allowed him to send $100 a month -- a small fortune by Iraqi standards -- to his destitute extended family. He discovered satellite television, trendy clothing and open political debate.
"Life in Jordan," he said, "has been very good."
But this morning, Lezam said he was ready to give it all up and head back home.
Lezam said he decided to return to Iraq after hearing about Hussein's decision Oct. 20 to issue a general amnesty to the nation's prisoners. The presidential edict, which largely emptied Iraq's jails, also applied to Iraqis living abroad. Those who had fled could return, the government said, without being subjected to criminal penalties for their illegal departure or other crimes they may have committed before leaving.
Over the last few weeks, in surprisingly large numbers, Iraqis living abroad have returned to Hussein's domain, despite the prospect of another war with the United States and Hussein's record of reneging on promises.
Since the amnesty went into effect, more than 2,000 Iraqis have asked the Iraqi Embassy in Amman for special, one-way travel documents to return, said Jawad al-Ali, the embassy's press attache. He said almost all of the applications have been approved.
Several hundred others have obtained similar permission from Iraq's diplomatic missions in Syria and Lebanon, officials said.
Iraqi officials said a small number of those who have asked to return are political dissidents, but the clear majority are economic migrants who left illegally.
A spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress, a main opposition group, said he knew of no exiles who had applied for passports. And even if they did, he said he doubted that new passports would be issued to well-known opponents of Hussein's government.
Lezam, 22, said he applied because he feared he might lose his only chance to see his parents and siblings again.
"I've been wanting to go back and visit my family, but there was no way to do it," he said. "I would have gone to jail."
While they may stay out of Hussein's notorious prisons, many young Iraqi returnees could face conscription if war tensions with the United States increase. But Lezam said he was not afraid of having to trade in the bluejeans and dark glasses he has grown fond of wearing in Jordan for military fatigues.
"Fighting doesn't scare me," he said. "I want to defend my country and teach the Americans a lesson."
As Lezam spoke, a small crowd of Iraqi men also waiting for travel documents gathered around. Most chimed in with similarly bellicose statements.
"God willing, we're going back to dig graves for the Americans," said Hamid Ressam, 36, who was wearing a flowing white tunic and a red-and-white tribal headdress. "In 1920, we defeated the British with simple weapons. We know the Americans have superior technology, but we will defeat them, too."
Several of the men said they hoped the arrival in Baghdad of the chief U.N. weapons inspector, Hans Blix, on Monday would set in motion a process that would avert a military conflict. But with the chances of another war with the United States higher than at any time since 1991, the men said they felt an obligation to be with their families, even if it meant giving up well-paying jobs and other benefits of living outside Iraq.
"At such a difficult time, I cannot stay away from my family and my country," said Akram Mohammed, 33, who left his parents' home in central Iraq a year ago. "We have to be together now."
Government officials described the amnesty as a gesture of thanks from Hussein after he received 100 percent of the vote in a referendum last month on whether his term should be extended by seven years.
Although Jordan and other nations neighboring Iraq fear an influx of refugees in the event of war, diplomats here said they have not yet noticed any discernible increase in the numbers of Iraqis trying to enter Jordan. About 300,000 Iraqis currently live in Jordan.
Al-Ali, the press attache, blamed U.N. sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait for the exodus of Iraqis over the past several years. The sanctions, which have restricted Iraq's ability to sell its oil, have reduced what was once one of the Arab world's most prosperous nations to a place of squalor, where people have been forced to sell their cars, furniture and other possessions to buy food.
"In the past, Iraqis never had to look abroad for money or work," he said. "We had everything we needed at home."
Lezam said he wondered how his family would handle the loss of $100 a month -- money that was used to help feed 23 people.
He said he talked to his relatives on Saturday, and they told him to return anyway.
"They said, 'We will put our faith in God,' " Lezam said. "We will find a way to make do."
A few moments later, a consular official on the other side of a metal-barred window called out his name. After providing a thumbprint to the man, Lezam received a small white book that would serve as his ticket across the Iraqi border.
"This is the happiest day of my life," he said. "I'm going back to Iraq!"