WASHINGTON -- President Bush, under mounting pressure to expand relief efforts for hundreds of thousands of starving Iraqi Kurdish refugees, said yesterday that U.S. and allied forces would build and protect emergency camps inside northern Iraq.
While current U.S.-led relief efforts were "truly unprecedented," Mr. Bush said that "the fact remains that the scale of the problem is even greater."
More than 500,000 Kurds, fleeing the Iraqi army after an abortive rebellion, are camped on or near the mountainous border between Turkey and Iraq, relief agencies say. Administration officials estimate that up to 1,000 are dying of exposure and starvation each day.
The inaccessibility of many of the refugees camped in high-lying mountains has hampered the multinational relief effort. President Bush said efforts would now be made to move or encourage the refugees to move to camps that would be prepared inside Iraq.
In conjunction with the United Nations and other international relief organizations, Mr. Bush said, "I have directed the U.S. military to begin immediately to establish several encampments in northern Iraq where relief supplies will be . . . distributed."
U.S., British and French air and ground forces would provide security to these "temporary sites," he said. He expressed the hope that U.N. peacekeeping forces would soon replace the U.S. and allied troops but said that this probably would require a new U.N. resolution.
Mr. Bush said he and allied leaders were satisfied that the move would not provoke a military confrontation with Iraq, even though Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government had not been consulted directly on the issue.
While "different in scale and approach," the relief effort was a temporary arrangement and did not signal a shift in the administration's policy of non-involvement in Iraq's civil strife, Mr. Bush insisted. He reiterated that the United States would not be drawn into "a Vietnam-style quagmire."
Mr. Bush's announcement at a hastily arranged White House news conference marked the third time in less than two weeks that the administration has been forced to increase drastically U.S.-led measures to resolve the Kurdish crisis.
Mr. Bush embraced yesterday a French proposal to set up a series of relief stations, staffed by U.N. workers, along the border and inside Iraq.
But some administration officials worried that the United States would be at least morally responsible for their safety thereafter, requiring some kind of military protection for some time to come.
Mr. Bush said that because of continuing tensions between the United States and Iran, the administration was unable to provide direct assistance to Kurds who have fled to Iran. But he said other countries might, such as Germany, which was providing $150 million in emergency aid to what Iranian officials have said ,, are more than 1 million refugees just inside the Iranian border.
Pentagon officials, meanwhile, said yesterday that they plan to increase sharply the U.S. military presence in neighboring Turkey and operate two "humanitarian support" bases near the Iraqi border. A Marine amphibious unit arrived this week as an advance force to provide security for the new facilities.
Administration officials stressed that the troops sent to Iraq would not be for combat.
"We are talking about troops that would move in and out for short periods of time -- I mean hours -- to help with camps or moving people around, or food, water, those kinds of things," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.
"These people are there just to support the relief effort and the refugees situation. They are not involved as combatants in the civil war or anything in that sense."
Pentagon officials said possibly "dozens" of U.S. soldiers would enter northern Iraq. Mr. Bush said yesterday that "relatively small numbers" would be involved.
Bob Hall, a Defense Department spokesman, said they were likely to come from units attached to the U.S. European Command, which has the primary responsibility for carrying out the Kurdish relief effort, code-named Operation Provide Comfort.
"We've got people doing aerial reconnaissance on both sides of the [Turkish-Iraqi] border right now," Mr. Hall said. "We have personnel that are assigned to EUCOM [European Command] that are on the ground on the Turkish side of the border identifying potential helicopter landing zones and instructing refugees" on sanitation, medical care and the use of tents and other equipment, he said.
Mr. Hall suggested that U.S. ground forces sent into Iraq would perform similar tasks. U.S. pilots would continue combat patrols in northern Iraqi airspace to protect cargo planes delivering relief supplies against any Iraqi military aircraft, he said.