WASHINGTON -- Fearing that Iraqi Kurds won't want to return home as long as Saddam Hussein stays in power, the Bush administration hopes to avoid or dilute an indefinite U.S. military presence in northern Iraq either through blue-helmeted United Nations troops or an expanded European role, senior administration officials said yesterday.
The U.S. commander of an allied force scouting out camps for Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq will cross into Iraqi territory today to meet officers of President Hussein's army with the aim of persuading them not to interfere with the allied military's humanitarian effort, Pentagon officials said. Iraq has 30,000 troops in the region.
In northern Iraq yesterday, U.S. military survey teams were examining possible sites for refugee camps near Zakho and other low-lying areas south of the town, said Bob Hall, a Pentagon spokesman.
The U.S. troops had not encountered any Iraqi forces, Mr. Hall said. "So far, there's no indication that they're making any moves to stop us at all," he said.
The United States hopes to get Iraq to acquiesce in the establishment of refugee camps along the border, something officials say is possible. That will ease the task of persuading the U.N. Security Council to endorse a U.N. takeover of the protective role now assigned to 16,000 U.S., British and French troops.
U.S. officials will argue that existing resolutions provide the necessary authority. Because of Soviet and Chinese objections, the Security Council would not approve another resolution setting up a U.N.-protected enclave for the Kurds.
Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar would decide the makeup of the U.N. force.
In the meantime, the United States hopes at least to dilute the U.S. military role with added European participation in the multinational force, a senior official said.
The United States is also weighing an Iraqi request to the Security Council to be able to sell nearly $1 billion worth of oil to pay for food and emergency supplies.
"We will not let Iraq starve," a senior official said, adding that the United States would examine the seriousness of Iraq's need and whether it already had money to pay for emergency supplies.
The official drew no connection between the possible oil sale and the need to secure Iraqi cooperation on a U.N. peacekeeping force.
But U.S. officials continue to view economic sanctions as the best way to bring about Mr. Hussein's downfall.
With no serious prospect of a military coup to topple him, U.S. officials despair of persuading the now more than 2 million Kurdish refugees on or near the Turkish and Iranian borders to return to their hometowns.
A U.N. special envoy, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, won agreement from Iraq yesterday to set up a series of relief centers, particularly in northern Iraq, intended to serve as relay stations for refugees returning home. The U.N.-run centers would provide food, shelter and emergency health care.
U.S. officials hope the centers, together with the presence of a number of civilian relief officials, will help persuade the refugees that they will be protected.
For now, however, the exodus is continuing, with roads into neighboring Iran jammed solid for 45 miles, the State Department reported yesterday.
Outlining hopes for U.N.-sponsored schemes to provide security for the Kurds, one senior official said, "I haven't heard anything yet which leads me to think, 'Yes, the Kurds would be prepared to rely on it and go back home.' "
Said another official: "It is extremely difficult to see how that takes place under the current government. What you're basically saying is that there has to be a new social compact or political compact between Kurds and the Iraqi central government, and Shia and the Iraqi central government. It is hard to see how that could happen under this government."
As a result, administration officials offer no predictions on how long the refugee camps will be needed.
While the issue of protecting the refugees is complex and politically difficult, transfer of the camps to U.N. or other *T humanitarian auspices should occur fairly quickly, U.S. officials said.
Meanwhile yesterday, administration officials said the United States was reviewing a request from Iran for aid for refugees there, following an Iranian reply to a U.S. offer of various types of aid. No U.S. military forces would be involved in that effort, an administration official said.