THE United States has now taken the lead in creating havens in northern Iraq for the Kurdish and other refugees trapped along the mountainous border with Turkey. Marine units, soon to be joined by British and French soldiers, are busily laying out camps. Iraqi forces in the area have been warned off. Humanitarian instincts, plus political pressures on President Bush to do something about the consequences of US-encouraged rebellion within Iraq, impelled the American response. The desire to help is laudable, but warnings have to be sounded.
Similarities between what's taking place in northern Iraq and what took place in Lebanon in the early '80s are disquieting. There, too, the US led a multinational effort to separate combatants and guarantee the safety of civilians. The planning was fast, with too little thought given to the ``what ifs.'' The outcome, as Americans painfully remember, was tragic.
The question marks in Iraq include:
* Iraq's response to a violation of its sovereignty. Will the regime in Baghdad simply allow an open-ended infringement in the north, or will it mount some kind of opposition? The presence of Iraqi police/soldiers in the town of Zakho, near US units, is ominous.
* The Kurds' willingness to suspend their guerrilla war against Saddam Hussein. If they use the safe areas as a base to harass the Iraqi Army and the Iraqis pursue them into the havens, then what?
* The possibility of quickly shifting administration of the refugees camps to the United Nations. That would be ideal, but many in the UN have deep reservations about intervening in a country's internal affairs.
* The refugees' willingness to come down from the mountains. This demands trust, and Kurds have reason to doubt the US commitment to protect them.
Kurdish leaders have met with Iraqi officials to arrive at a compromise that would include some kind of autonomy. The Kurds don't trust Saddam, of course, but they know what to expect from him. His agreement to an arrangement with the Kurds would have to bolstered by substantial international guarantees.
As UN peacekeepers take their posts along the border in southern Iraq, the US should do all it can to internationalize the protection of refugees in the north of Iraq.