Allied Zone in Northern Iraq Expanded; In South, US Airlifts Iraqis Out
ZAKHO, Iraq (AP) _ In a change of plans, allied forces have more than doubled the size of their security zone for Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq and are scouting a site for a second settlement, U.S. officers said Sunday.
In southern Iraq, meanwhile, the U.S. Army began an airlift to Saudi Arabia of refugees who fear reprisals from Iraqi security forces if they remain. That was seen as a major step toward the U.S. troops’ own departure.
Many Iraqis were displaced by the Shiite Muslim revolt in the south and the Kurdish uprising in the north, which broke out after the Persian Gulf War. The insurgencies failed to dislodge Saddam, who marked his 54th birthday on Sunday.
But renewed clashes were reported between Shiites and Iraqi forces near the southern city of Basra.
The fighting caused heavy casualties among government forces and at least two personnel carriers were set ablaze, Iranian radio reported. The broadcast, monitored in London, also claimed rebels attacked government intelligence posts in the southern cities of Al-Amarah and Karbala, killing some Iraqi troops.
The report could not be independently verified.
In northern Iraq, the initial allied-protected security zone was to have encompassed a 630-square-mile area that stretched 18 miles south and 35 miles east of Zakho. Allied troops were also planning to complete one camp before starting another.
Now, the new zone is envisioned to be about 1,350 square miles and troops will start a second camp before finishing the first.
Army officers said the change of plans came after they realized that not all the Kurds were willing to come to the camp at Zakho, where about 1,000 tents have been set up for refugees.
In addition, the officers said they hoped that expanding the size of the zone would encourage Kurds to come down from the mountains, where many of them live in appalling conditions but are too afriad of Iraqi retribution to leave.
In the easternmost allied push so far, a company of British Royal Marines moved into the Iraqi town of Batufla, about 18 miles east of Zakho, on Saturday night.
When the British troops arrived, a battalion of Iraqi Republican Guard left, officers said.
Soon, U.S. Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit will enter Amadiyah, about 75 miles east of Zahko, where a second camp is planned, said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jim Christophersen, of the 432nd Civil Affairs Company of Green Bay, Wis.
″This will effectively double the size of the security zone,″ said Christophersen, whose men will manage both camps until the United Nations and humanitarian agencies can take over.
Privately, some officers expressed concern that the expansion, by increasing allied military involvement in Iraq, could raise the possibility of coalition forces being drawn into a quagmire in Iraq.
″We’re hoping to be out of here by the end of May,″ said Christophersen. But he added: ″That may be wishful thinking.″
Some refugees have begun to complain that Kurdish resistance fighters, known as Pesh Merga or ″those who face death,″ are stopping refugees who seek to return to their homes.
On a winding road heading to the mountaintop refugee camp at Isikveren, on the Turkish side of the border, dozens of Kurdish families complained that the guerrillas were blocking their return.
Dilbar Mohammed, a 30-year-old Kurd, said he sent his wife and two children home to Zakho two weeks ago on the nine-hour walk on foot from Isikveren. Since then, he has been waiting at a Pesh Merga checkpoint for permission to drive the family car into Zakho.
″Before this time, I wanted to believe in Kurdistan,″ he said. ″But now I just want to be with my family.″
At the checkpoint, Pesh Merga guerrillas said they were waiting for orders to let the Kurds return. But Mohammed and others charged that the guerrillas were accepting bribes.
A French army doctor, Col. Jean La Roix, said one group of rebels had set up a checkpoint near a French field hospital and charged passengers a fee to pass through.
″They’re running a racket here,″ he said.
British Royal Marine Lt. Peter Murphy said allied forces were meeting with guerrillas in an effort to convince them that they should allow their people to return home.
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was possible the refugees were being held back because the Kurdish leadership did not want to lose control of their people once they came down into the camps.
Also, the official said, rogue elements among the rebels were seizing the opportunity for extortion. Most allied military officers, however, played down that element.
On Sunday, the European Community endorsed a British proposal to send a U.N. police force to Iraq to help convince the Kurdish refugees it is safe to return home.
Britain made its proposal at a two-day meeting of EC foreign ministers in Luxembourg. It received ″a unanimous welcome,″ said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos, the meeting’s chairman.
In the airlift in the south, five Air Force transport planes took from an airfield at Safwan with 339 Iraqis, one-third of them children, bound for the Saudi border camp of Rafha. The refugees were allowed to take only what they could carry.
They were told they could accept the offer to go to Rafha, or remain in Iraq after the U.S. troops shut down the Safwan camp.
Safwan lies in the Iraqi portion of a demilitarized zone that is to be patrolled by a 1,440-member United Nations observer force. The zone extends six miles into Iraq and three miles into Kuwait, and runs along the entire 120-mile border.