WASHINGTON — AS United States ground forces finally withdraw from southern Iraq, the predictable phase of the Gulf war is coming to a close. That the military might of the US-led coalition could oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait was never in doubt: The only question was what the cost would be, for both sides. Now a less-predictable stage of the crisis begins in earnest. The plight of Kurdish and Shiite refugees shows that the events unleashed in the Gulf have some way yet to run, and are now being driven by forces the United States cannot or chooses not to control. Feeding desperate Kurds is just the short-term problem. Fitting refugees back into the map of the Middle East will be much harder.
"I would look for a refugee problem to be on our necks for some time now," says Charles Winslow, a University of Indiana Middle East scholar.
Administration officials say they will turn over responsibility for Iraqi refugees to international relief organizations as soon as possible. Yet in the south, along the Iraqi-Kuwait border, many Shiite refugees are panicked about being left behind by US protectors. In the north, US military units are stepping up help in an emergency effort to feed the Kurds who have fled to inaccessible Turkish terrain.
The White House says the solution to the problem is for everyone to be allowed to return to their homes. But it's not clear if the refugees can, or will, do so as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power. "We'll just have to wait and see," said presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater on Monday, April 15.
Some seven weeks after President Bush called a halt to hostilities, US forces were vacating Iraq almost as fast as they had occupied it.
The units remaining in the portion of the country seized by the anti-Saddam coalition began pulling out of their posts on Sunday, April 14, and Defense Secretary Richard Cheney estimated that they would have withdrawn to a buffer zone along the border with Kuwait by April 16.
The Pentagon has been pressing for forces to come home as soon as possible, now that the stated goal of liberating Kuwait has been achieved, and a steady pace of some 5,000 returnees a day has made a substantial dent in the numbers of US personnel in the Middle East.
From a strength of 540,000 at the height of the deployment, US forces are now down to about 280,000.
US tanks are leaving a country where an estimated 1.5 million refugees are now in motion and in need of urgent assistance, according to UN estimates. In the north, where the logistics of feeding the Kurds has become a nightmare, the US military has begun flying 40 C-130 cargo planes and almost 60 helicopters in what US officials term a massive relief effort.
The cost of the Iraqi refugee effort will eventually top $1 billion, according to US estimates. In response to a UN appeal for money, the international community has so far pledged $270 million, with $53 million of that promised by the US.
To protect the Kurds and Shiites after the US has gone, an "international presence" should be established within Iraq, according to a US refugee official. Princeton Lyman, director of the State Department Bureau for Refugee Programs, said the United Nations and other international relief organizations should set up shop in the areas refugees have fled from, as well as the border regions where they are now encamped.
Mr. Lyman said this concept is still in the formative stages, but that the presence should go beyond the idea of "enclaves" that the US and its allies have discussed in recent weeks.
"Hopefully we will begin to see an international presence of the dimension that people will begin to feel safe," Lyman told a Senate committee April 15.
The Iraqi refugee crisis may be more than just a question of providing adequate humanitarian relief, however. The Kurds in particular carry with them geopolitical problems that have only become more acute in the wake of the Gulf war.
Turkey, for example, still has some 30,000 Iraqi Kurds sheltered in government relief camps from the last time Kurds ran from Saddam Hussein's soldiers, three years ago.
The Turks have thus been reluctant to allow the current influx of Kurds to move to safer ground, deeper in Turkey, for fear they, too, won't leave.
There are approximately 20 million Kurds spread throughout Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria, and the Soviet Union. Many desperately want self-determination. But who will give it to them? Which nation will let them in, since none want to add to their own already restive Kurdish populations?
"The very presence of Kurdish refugees has sown the seeds for future tension" in the region, says Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, former Iranian ambassador to the UN, now a Columbia University visiting scholar.