WASHINGTON -- U.S. troops began entering northern Iraq yesterday to scout possible sites for camps where more than 500,000 starving and homeless Kurdish refugees could receive emergency aid and military protection, Pentagon officials said.
The deployment of about 100 soldiers marked the first step in what officials said would be a rapidly escalating U.S. military presence intended solely to improve humanitarian relief efforts over the next two to four weeks.
Several thousand more U.S. troops, along with undetermined numbers of French and British forces, are likely to move into Iraq soon, but Pentagon officials -- some of them acknowledging possible security threats from Iraqi forces in the region -- insisted that their stay in the country would be "temporary."
"It's clearly our intention to go in and provide emergency relief that is needed. But we would like to turn over management of the camps to an international organization as quickly as we can," Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said.
"We have no desire to get involved in the military conflict in Iraq. We have no desire to go to Baghdad," he told reporters before giving a speech on Capitol Hill.
The movement of troops into northern Iraq, based on orders issued by President Bush and signed by Mr. Cheney only the night before, coincided with the continuing, speedy departure of U.S. troops who have been occupying about 28,000 square miles of southern Iraq in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf war, which ended Feb. 28.
U.S. military headquarters in Saudi Arabia announced that withdrawal of the more than 540,000 U.S. personnel from the gulf region had passed the halfway mark and that Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces in the gulf, and his staff would shut down most of their operations and return to their headquarters in Tampa, Fla., Sunday.
In northern Iraq yesterday, about 100 U.S. soldiers, among them medical specialists and military police, were split into small "survey" teams and dispersed by helicopter to low-lying areas near Iraq's mountainous border with Turkey, said Marine Lt. Gen. Martin Brandtner, operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Aiding their search for possible refugee campsites were Air Force A-10s and Army helicopters on aerial reconnaissance missions, he said.
The military plan, as described by the general and others, calls for military crews to begin erecting several large "relief centers" and adjoining "satellite camps" in the next few days, while other troops would develop supply lines to link the centers by helicopter to rail lines or roads inside Turkey. The camps are to consist mainly of large tents rather than permanent structures.
Among the possible sites were areas in or near the cities of Zakho and Dohuk, which have improved roads, and areas north of Mosul and Erbil.
Meanwhile, military medical teams and civil affairs specialists are to work with the Kurdish refugees, at least a half-million of whom are massed along the Turkish-Iraqi border, many stranded in freezing, mountainous terrain. Deliveries of food, medicine and other supplies are to intensify, with airdrops and truck convoys originating from recently established bases in Turkey at Silopi and Diyarbakir.
Military "psychological operations" teams, probably relying on leaflets and loudspeakers, are eventually to try to encourage refugees to come down from the mountains to the relief centers, where aid can be administered more efficiently. U.S. troops are to help transport them.
"You're looking at about two weeks before the camps would be '' pretty well ready to go," Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said.