DIYARBAKIR, Turkey -- In what appeared to be the start of a massive U.S. effort to take the lead in relief operations for the refugees of northern Iraq, three U.S. warships brought transport helicopters and 3,000 Marines to the Turkish port of Iskendurun yesterday amid plans to build a logistical supply base in southern Turkey and relief centers in the mountainous border region with Iraq.
U.S. Army Col. Don Kirchoffner, director of the Combined Information Bureau at the Incirlik air base, said the U.S. forces would organize the operation to culminate in feeding 700,000 mostly Kurdish refugees one meal a day, through helicopter drops and direct food deliveries.
U.S. diplomatic sources said that at least three centers would be built where the refugees are clustered, including inside northern Iraq.
"For practical purposes, there's no great distinction between the Iraqi and Turkish side of the border," said one diplomat, adding that relief efforts would "see to basic needs, getting food [and] water supplied and immediate medical attention on both sides of the border."
Although Turkish officials have appealed for international help, they have been overwhelmed by the sudden volume of aid and ill-equipped to provide an air supply operation.
U.S. officials are describing the planned relief effort as "the largest U.S. military relief operation in modern history." It is expected to involve 8,300 military personnel.
So far, relief work has been hindered by an utter lack of organization. Helicopters dropping parcels of food and supplies have crushed 15 people to death, and Turkish authorities have left the refugees to compete for aid packages. Even medicines, it is reported, have simply been tossed off the back of trucks.
U.S. and European officials, as well as international agencies, have appealed to the Turkish government to allow an estimated 300,000 refugees concentrated high in the Cudi Mountains to be brought down. "The quicker they are moved, the better," a U.S. diplomat said yesterday.
Turkey was still considering the requests, but Turkish television reported last night that 20,000 refugees would be allowed down the mountain to the city of Silopi today. They will stay at a camp for Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca.
The Ankara government also announced that it would build a hospital in the city of Cizre, nearly a three-hour ambulance ride from the sprawling refugee camp at Isikveren.
Colonel Kirchoffner said the first step -- airlifts to deliver food immediately -- would give way to a second phase of sending aid to forward bases from which the refugees could be supplied by helicopter and truck.
U.S. teams are surveying the needs of the refugees and outlining what is necessary to provide help -- the first step toward building centers with running water, shelter and medical care. Once those are built, the United States will begin moving supplies forward.
The ships that arrived yesterday brought 16 transport helicopters that can drop food and supplies from as low as 10 feet. Another 35 Blackhawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters are joining the operation from U.S. bases in Italy and Germany.
Each of the initial three centers -- staffed by 70 soldiers each -- would organize food distribution and medical care, said a source who did not wish to be identified.
A U.S. diplomat acknowledged that the creation of relief bases in a so-called safety zone of northern Iraq was a sensitive matter for Ankara, which is concerned that it could result in the creation of an independent Kurdish state on its border.
But the Turkish government's more immediate concern, he said, was "not to allow a large number of Kurds in Turkey because they don't know when they'll go back to Iraq."
In addition to the refugees on the Turkish-Iraqi border, another 1 million have gathered at Iran's border with Iraq. Iranian officials, saying Iran was spending $10 million a day to feed them, asked yesterday for international help.
[Iraqi President Saddam Hussein said that refugees could return home without reprisal, Baghdad newspapers reported yesterday, according to the Los Angeles Times.
["What is past is past, and we are starting again. We are used to starting again," Mr. Hussein was quoted as saying.]