WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration disclosed plans yesterday for a major expansion of relief efforts for beleaguered Kurdish refugees, a move that could lead to the first deployment of U.S. personnel into northern Iraq.
As the administration scrambled to counter criticism that it has been slow to help the Kurds, President Bush insisted that he was in "total agreement" with European allies on what steps to take.
The new plans call for setting up a relief effort capable of feeding and sheltering as many as 700,000 people who have fled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's forces.
"We are going forward to give relief to these people where they are, and we are going to continue to do that, and we do not expect any interference from the man in Baghdad. And he knows better than to interfere," Mr. Bush told reporters after meeting with top officials from the European Community.
"And, P.S., I am not going to involve any American troops in a civil war in Iraq," Mr. Bush added. "I want these kids to come home, and that's what's going to happen."
Administration officials, however, said that they could not rule out the possibility that U.S. military forces might be required to escort relief supplies into Iraq or to move in to help maintain order.
U.S. and allied forces have also developed contingency plans in case Mr. Hussein's regime ignores U.S. warnings -- first made over the weekend and repeated Wednesday -- that declared the portion of Iraq north of the 36th parallel a "haven" for the Kurds.
"There's no intention to cross the border," a White House official said, adding that plans call for U.S. personnel to stay on the Turkish side of the border while leaving all operations inside Iraq to Turks and other contract employees.
But U.S. officials conceded that their plans could break down because of the chaotic border situation, particularly if Mr. Hussein's forces try to attack the refugees.
"There are forces there that are capable of taking action to carry out the warning that we have given to Iraq," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.
Such action, he insisted, would not violate Mr. Bush's promise to avoid becoming entangled in a civil war.
"American soldiers are not going to die trying to sort out the government in Baghdad," he said. "But on the other hand, we are going to help the refugees. . . . They are two distinct matters."
The aid effort also could lead to greater U.S. involvement with Iran, which has accepted tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees.
Iran has notified Washington that it will accept U.S. help funneled through international agencies, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
"In public statements, Iran has now made clear their willingness to accept international assistance for refugees located inside Iran," he said. "Iran has also announced that their airspace will be open to relief flights bringing humanitarian assistance to the refugees."
The cost of the relief operation is climbing steadily. White House officials declined to put an overall price tag on the effort, but Mr. Boucher said that U.S. relief efforts had cost about $53 million this year.
In addition, he said, the United Nations plans an emergency appeal for between $450 million and $500 million to help what could be as many as 1.7 million displaced Iraqis who remain in their own country or have fled to Iran, Turkey, Syria and Jordan.