Aid to Iraqi Kurds Means US Troops Will Remain
Pentagon officials say danger of military engagement is low, but it is unclear when US will be free to pull out
WASHINGTON — THE use of American, British, and French troops to establish refugee centers for the feeding and protection of Kurds means the United States won't be pulling out of Iraq quite as quickly and cleanly as planned. United States officials insist that schedule changes are minor, however, and that they won't get drawn deeper into Iraq's civil war. Although there are Iraqi government troops near some of the areas where the allies are erecting camps, there's no indication that they will challenge the operation.
"Nobody here's really worried about that," says a knowledgeable Pentagon official.
Iraq, not informed in advance of the allied plan, denounced it Wednesday as unnecessary meddling in its internal affairs. Yesterday, Iraq and the United Nations signed an agreement that pledges to ensure safety and relief for Iraqi refugees. Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, who represented the UN, said he anticipated some form of cooperation between the UN humanitarian efforts and those of the Gulf war allies.
The plan calls for an unspecified number of UN humanitarian centers throughout Iraq.
Meanwhile, the US-British-French refugee center operation will involve an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 US troops. Initial survey teams planned to complete staking out sites for six or seven large camps in northern Iraq by April 19. Construction will take two weeks, according to Pentagon estimates.
The current US effort to air-drop supplies to the Kurds now huddled in the mountains on the Turkish side of the border will be expanded until the camps are ready. The US and its allies will then help truck the refugees to the new camps inside Iraq.
Security for both the camps and supply lines stretching back into Turkey will be provided by quick-reaction light infantry forces stationed outside Iraq, plus stepped-up combat air patrols.
The Pentagon says there are some 30,000 Iraqi government troops north of the 36th Parallel, and that some have been seen in the planned refugee camp areas. But the lack of roads and other transport lines in the area means that any attempt to move against the Kurdish camps in force would be difficult. "The Air Force would chew them to shreds," says the Pentagon official.
The operation won't change redeployment plans for most of the US forces in the Gulf region, the Pentagon says. The US Army VII Corps, Marine divisions, and other major units will proceed with departure as scheduled. Whereas the Gulf war was run by the US military's Central Command, under the leadership of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the relief operation comes under the aegis of the US European Command.
Some specialists, such as engineers, doctors, or linguists, could find themselves pulled from units that are going home and sent back up to help with the Kurdish camps. But "I think the numbers would be extremely small," Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said.
When the US would be able to pull out of the refugee camps is another, more difficult, question. The Pentagon insists it has no plans to run permanent refugee camps, and that the idea is to turn the sites over to the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations as soon as practical.
For planning purposes, the US military expects to maintain a 14- to 30-day stockpile of food, water, and other supplies on hand. "That is not meant to convey how long we expect to be doing this," said Lt. Gen. Marty Brandtner, Joint Staff director of operations.
Building the camps in northern Iraq means the Kurds will come down out of the inaccessible mountain regions to healthier ground, says the Pentagon, and will also put them closer to home. But reports from the region indicate that as long as Saddam Hussein stays in power, many Kurds may not want to return home, fearing they will just be targets for the next purge.
Bringing the US and the UN into northern Iraq, however, could create a de-facto shield of international protection for the Kurds that hasn't existed before, says Ray Tanter, a former National Security Council staffer, now a professor at the University of Michigan.
"If their goal is to get autonomy within Iraq they are well along the way," he says.
Before a resolution condemning Iraq's repression of the Kurds and insisting on access to refugees by humanitarian organizations could pass the UN Security Council two weeks ago, a clause reaffirming the principle of non-interference with internal affairs had to be inserted. Other nations with unhappy minorities, such as the Soviet Union and China, were understood to be unwilling to approve any further resolution that could allow intervention in the Iraqi civil war.