WASHINGTON -- The week-old campaign ordered by President Bush to feed, clothe and shelter the hundreds of thousands of Kurds fleeing Iraq has quickly expanded into what has been called the largest relief effort in modern military history and is still growing fast.
U.S. military engineers, food handlers and medical personnel, as well as tons of supplies and the trucks, ships and helicopters needed to carry them, were being rushed yesterday toward the mountain camps of Iraq's Kurdish refugees.
Now being designed to care for about 700,000 people until United Nations and other international relief organizations can take over in a month or so, Operation Provide Comfort is "unfolding faster than we can keep up with it," said Air Force Capt. Sam Grizzle, a Pentagon spokesman.
More than 8,300 U.S. military personnel have already been assigned to the task, most of them attached to the European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, which is coordinating the operation with the assistance of British and French air units.
The actual relief effort is still in the first phase of dropping food, water, blankets, field jackets, tents and other supplies from planes flying over the region of northernmost Iraq where the refugees are located.
As of Thursday, 346 tons of material had been dropped in 71 missions by U.S., British and French teams.
To improve the accuracy and efficiency of the airlift, 35 Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters were sent to the region yesterday from Europe.
But the U.S. government is also arranging to replace the military food rations being supplied during the airlift with rice and beans purchased from markets in Turkey and trucked into northern Iraq by Turkish drivers working under contract.
Ultimately, the plan is to provide one meal a day for 700,000 people. A unit of 110 Army food and water distributors based in Saudi Arabia for the Persian Gulf war were redeployed yesterday to assist.
Five U.S. naval vessels were also dispatched to the region yesterday, most from the Mediterranean Sea, bearing 10,064 tons of food and 18,860 tons of dry provisions.
Meanwhile, 130 soldiers from an Army medical unit based in Tulsa, Okla., but serving most recently in Saudi Arabia, were sent yesterday to the U.S. air base in Incirlik, Turkey, en route to the refugee enclave.
One hundred soldiers from an Army construction battalion will join them to provide durable shelter and other facilities for the refugees.
Most voluntary relief groups are still organizing their appeals for donations, but the American Red Cross made its first contribution to the relief effort yesterday.
A $1.3 million cache of winter tents, woolen blankets and cooking utensils was sent to Andrews Air Force Base yesterday, where it was scheduled to be shipped to Iraq on a C-5 transport plane this weekend.