SILOPI, Turkey -- A contingent of 500 Marines entered northern Iraq yesterday afternoon, in the first phase of U.S. plans to lure Kurdish refugees home from Turkey by providing allied military protection and emergency relief in part of northern Iraq, U.S. military spokesmen here said.
The Marines left here by helicopter at 1 p.m. for an area near Zakho, about eight miles from the Turkish border. They were to assure protection of the land and begin laying the infrastructure for the first relief center, said Army Maj. Ron Gahagan.
Later yesterday afternoon, Major Gahagan said that the Marines had not encountered any Iraqi soldiers. He added that British and French forces were doing reconnaissance flights over the area, though they were not on the ground in great numbers in Iraq.
"It's encouraging that our forces haven't met with any resistance," the major said yesterday.
The 500 Marines are from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Battalion, based in the Mediterranean. They include infantrymen, engineers and a civil affairs team.
The U.S. plan calls for building 10 to 15 relief centers, tent cities that would house 25,000 refugees in a U.S.-designated haven north of the 36th parallel in Iraq. It foresees turning over operation of the relief centers to the United Nations and other international organizations in a month or so. The allied presence could reach up to 16,000 troops, military sources said.
Baghdad has not given its approval to the presence of foreign troops in Iraq, though it has not said it would oppose them militarily.
Yesterday, Major Gahagan said that Iraqi generals had been handed four U.S. demands at a meeting on the Turkish-Iraqi border, in advance of the initial troop deployment.
Major Gahagan said the Iraqis were told to evacuate all troops to points south of the 36th parallel and not to fly north of the line.
They were also ordered to avoid contact with allied forces and to refrain from interfering with the relief operation, he said.
"To my knowledge, there was no contact with Iraqi forces [yesterday]," the major said.
There was no sign either that Baghdad, which has continued sporadic attacks against the Kurdish guerrillas and refugees in recent weeks, had accepted the U.S. terms.
U.S. spokesmen also said that they knew of no contact between the U.S. military and Iraqi Kurdish guerrilla groups, which U.S. analysts fear may exploit the guarantee of protection to attack Iraqi forces.
An estimated 700,000 predominantly Kurdish refugees from northern Iraq have gathered in the mountains between Iraq and Turkey in the last three weeks, fleeing reprisals for their failed rebellion against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein after the Persian Gulf war ended.
An additional 1 million refugees are massed at the Iranian border.
U.S. forces are to rebuild one of two bridges near the Turkish border to allow convoys to begin transporting materials for the prototype tent city within the next 48 hours.
The first relief center is to be completed within 10 days.
The Marines were also planning to meet representatives of the refugees, who, after seeing the first camp and assessing the safety of the region, could persuade others that "it sure beats the heck out of living on a mountainside in unsanitary conditions," Major Gahagan said.
The allied plan calls for the refugees to pass through the tent cities and eventually return to their homes -- if their homes are still standing.
"Our concern right now is to get them off the mountain, get them fed and give them medical care," the major said. "Once they are feeling better, they should go home."
That, however, is the rub: Once the relief centers close and foreign protection ends, the Kurds wonder what would shield them from a further onslaught by Mr. Hussein.