ON the Rawanduz-Piranshahr road tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds still wait to enter Iran. A few days after Iraq's civilian uprisings began, Iran opened its territory to fleeing Iraqis, unlike Turkey which repelled the waves of Iraqi Kurds seeking shelter on its soil. Many Iranians have done whatever they could to come to the rescue of Kurds fleeing Iraq. Western diplomats in Tehran estimate that about 1 million Iraqi Kurds have fled to the Iranian provinces of West Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, and Bakhtaran (formerly Kermanshah).
Last Friday, at 6 a.m., a seemingly endless column of refugees stretched into Iraqi territory on the narrow road leading to the pass that overlooks the Iranian border town of Piranshahr.
Iranian soldiers only open the border during the day because they want to register every family entering the Islamic republic, one of the officers says. This means would-be refugees have to spend at least one night on the road before entering Iran.
Living conditions in this huge waiting line are appalling. Under the icy, torrential rain entire families desperately look for shelter. The most fortunate of them have come with cars, trucks, or carts. The poorest sit or lie barefoot and without blankets in the mud. Almost all have frostbite.
Iraqi refugees can only enter Iran on paved roads because of the thousands of mines laid along the border by both belligerents during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. Iranian soldiers manning the checkpoint explain that during the first days of the exodus hundreds of refugees were blown up in those mine fields.
A worker with a European Community-sponsored relief organization operating along the border tells of many children arriving in Iran dehydrated. As he spoke, two of his colleagues were busy pumping out water that had flooded their tiny field hospital.
"The terrible weather conditions here are the No. 1 problem," the worker says. "It's hard for relief workers to spend more than two or three days in a row on the border. When you can't even rest a few hours a day in a dry place, your morale crumbles quickly."
A few miles down the road in Piranshahr, tens of thousands of refugees throng the streets. Many spend their days and nights under small tents of plastic sheeting.
PRIVATE Iranian houses as well as public buildings are crammed with Iraqis. Hundreds of people sit wordless in the city's mosque, coughing endlessly. Those interviewed say little but repeat that they will not return to Iraq as long as President Saddam Hussein remains in power.
In one of the city's squares, an Iranian man offers to take in an entire Iraqi family. "My house is already full," he says, "but I will take them anyway. The Iraqis were our enemies during the eight years of war, but when I see them sleeping in the cold mud I think it is my duty as a believer to try to alleviate their sufferings."
Western diplomats in Tehran are unanimous in saying the Iranian Army and Red Crescent Society have performed a tremendous job in coping with the flood of refugees, but add that they are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the tragedy.
Iranian officials for their part say they would like more international aid for the refugees in Iran. They add that they oppose the setting up of security zones for Kurds inside Iraq because it is a first step toward the dismemberment of the country.
Since the start of the Gulf crisis, Iran has repeatedly stressed that it considers existing international borders inalienable.
"We have the feeling that the Western world in general and Great Britain in particular is tempted to create an independent Kurdistan between Turkey, Iran, and Iraq," an Iranian diplomat says. "We can't accept this. This state would be a new Israel in the Middle East."
Tehran worries that any step toward autonomy for Iraqi Kurdish regions may, in the long run, trigger troubles in Iran's Kurdish provinces, European diplomats in Tehran say.
In the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution the Iranian Army waged a brief war to crush a Kurdish nationalist uprising. The Iranians also say they don't want the Kurds entering their country to settle for good. On Saturday, Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Akbar Velayati repeated that Iran is eager to see Iraqi Kurds return to their country.
"When the Gulf crisis comes to a final end the Iraqi refugees will naturally leave Iran," says an official of the municipality of Piranshahr. The official also insisted that any UN resolution lifting economic sanctions against Iraq should include a paragraph forcing the Iraqi government to allow all Kurds to return safely.
Many Iranians living in border towns say that the Kurds are fleeing their country not only because of the internal rebellions but also because of the economic sanctions against Iraq. Many Kurds this reporter talked to confirmed that their provinces have thus far been the hardest hit by the international embargo.