SILOPI, Turkey -- U.S. Marines began constructing the first relief center inside northern Iraq yesterday in hopes of luring back the hundreds of thousands of Kurds who have fled their homeland.
Convoys of trucks crossed the border about five miles from here carrying equipment too heavy to airlift, including water-purification systems, bulldozers and forklifts to help build the camp.
So far, 32 blue tents topped with white canopies have been pitched for returning refugees at the first camp two miles northeast of Zakho.
Upon its completion, the prototype camp will have about 5,000 tents in 32-tent quadrangles with food, lavatories and medical care for 20,000 to 25,000 people.
A multinational protective force is being deployed as 10 to 15 such relief centers go up.
Iraq's state-run press denounced the American effort yesterday. This provocative behavior is blatant interference in Iraq's domestic affairs anda flagrant violation of international law," said the government daily Al-Thawra.
The army newspaper Al-Qadissiya said, "The American dream is to fragment Iraq and to impose complete U.S. domination over it."
As Iraqi military units withdrew from the area yesterday, 1,400 U.S. Marines took control of the U.S.-designated haven in northern Iraq. They found a virtual ghost town in Zakho -- a city drained by the eight-month United Nations embargo against Iraq, the Persian Gulf war, the Kurdish insurrection and Iraqi reprisals, and the flight of nearly the entire population for the Turkish border.
"Were here, 100,000. But now, no thousand," a Kurdish teacher walking on Zakho's main street said in broken English.
Eleven miles or so inside Iraq, the city of Zakho has lost all that could be taken. The glass windows are all smashed, doors have been ripped off their hinges. And the only poster of Saddam Hussein is pocked with bullet holes, according to pool reports from the area yesterday.
The former headquarters of the Iraqi Army's 44th Division, with the Iraqi and Palestinian flags painted on its buildings, was deserted yesterday. Now flying the U.S. flag, it has become the ** headquarters of the Joint Task Force South-Bravo under the command of U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Jay Garner.
All Iraqi security forces were to have left the area north of the 36th parallel yesterday, after some of them helped remove explosive devices and mines from one of two rebuilt bridges at the Turkish border. They were also helping identify land mines
The Iraqis were replaced by U.S. forces on the mountain ridge past the Turkish border in Iraq, at the border crossing, and in Zakho, though it was unclear whether the Iraqis had completely withdrawn from the safety zone by last night.
The Marines are to secure an area stretching 35 miles east and 20 miles south of the border bridge.
But shortly after the Iraqi military pulled out of Zakho, roughly 200 soldier look-alikes -- Baath Party police in drab green uniforms and berets, carrying Kalashnikovs -- arrived in the city, terrifying the few remaining residents and surprising U.S. Marines.
"I am very afraid," one young man said. "You in Iraq. No in America. No in Europe. "We don't know anything. Maybe they kill us," he said, as an Iraqi policeman closed in behind him.
Residents of Zakho said Baghdad radio had announced that departing soldiers would be replaced by police from Mosul, south of the 36th parallel.
U.S. military officials appeared dismayed by the arrival of the Iraqi police, which they said violated the agreement worked out with Iraqi generals yesterday morning.
"We are very concerned about this new development . . . which we think is contrary to the spirit of our new agreement with the Iraqis, which was to withdraw [Iraqi] security from Zakho, and U.S. forces would be responsible for security," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Robert Flocke.
U.S. Marine Sgt. Mike Maloley, who had spoken with the Iraqi commanding officers, said they seemedunusually suspicious. The Iraqi officers tried to keep the policemen from speaking with FTC a group of reporters in the city and repeatedly shooed them away from the foreigners. One officer actually covered a policeman's mouth with his hand to silence him.
"It is the first time I have seen the Iraqis in this mood," Sergeant Maloley said. "They are very tense and untrusting.
"The look on their faces was, 'This is the enemy in front of us, it looks like we've got a bit of a situation here.' The Baath Party doesn'twant them associating with us," the sergeant said, referring to Iraq's ruling political faction.
However, Col. James Jones, commander of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit in northern Iraq, did not appear concerned by the encounter since Baghdad appeared to be complying with allied demands.
He suggested that Zakho was being used as a gathering point for removing troops from northern Iraq and that the troops may have been mistaken for police.
"It remains to be seen what theyare," he said. "I can tell you they're leaving the key terrain that threatens the area we are protecting."