WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is planning a substantial relief effort for the 1 million Iraqi refugees in Iran and may ship supplies directly into Iran on military aircraft, officials said yesterday.
Planning for the operation is sensitive because of the absence of diplomatic relations and the continuing strains between the United States and Iran. But one official said an announcement could come as early as today.
For the past several weeks, the United States has concentrated its relief efforts, including military airlifts, on the Iraqi-Turkish border, in part because of strong appeals by Turkish President Turgut Ozal, who developed a close relationship with President Bush during the Persian Gulf crisis.
Iran recently forwarded a request through Swiss intermediaries for needed relief items and supplied a more specific list over the weekend that includes tents, food and medicine.
"We are now searching our inventories to determine what items can be supplied most quickly. We are also examining how to get them to the refugees in Iran by the fastest means possible, whether directly or indirectly," said Mark Dillen, a State Department spokesman.
He said there were no political strings attached. The United States says that relations with Iran won't warm substantially so long as Lebanese Shiite Muslim militants with strong links to Iran continue to hold American hostages and Iran continues to support international terrorists.
Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said military or charter airlifts were under consideration, but another official said military flights were considered the quickest route.
In addition to the 1 million refugees who have entered Iran -- about
half of them children -- 500,000 are at or near the Iraqi border.
The aid is being prepared as U.S. Marines continue erecting camps in Iraq near the Turkish border intended to lure hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees down from inaccessible mountain encampments.
Officials in Washington and on the scene gave different accounts yesterday about the problems posed by Iraqi troops who remain in the area of the planned camps despite U.S. warnings to them to stay away.
The Pentagon appeared to soften its stance toward the Iraqis, suggesting that the United States would tolerate armed Iraqi paramilitary forces in Zakho and other areas occupied by U.S. troops or Kurdish refugees -- for the time being.
Although U.S. officials preferred the Iraqis to "stay away" from the areas, there has been no insistence or deadline given for the withdrawal of Iraqi forces, Mr. Williams said.
During a Pentagon briefing, Mr. Williams declared that the Iraqis had not been interfering with efforts to erect refugee camps or to distribute humanitarian aid to the Kurds. He even commended the Iraqis for aiding U.S. troops in clearing mines from part of the roadside along a supply route connecting Zakho to Silopi, Turkey.
In a letter to the United Nations, meanwhile, Iraq called the U.S. military effort an "unjustifiable and unfounded attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq." It asked the United Nations to take over the camps being erected by U.S., British and French forces, something the allies say they already intend.
Yesterday, about 1,300 U.S. troops were working in northern Iraq, most of them members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit assigned to build the camps and provide security. The total number of U.S. military personnel in Turkey and Iraq climbed to 9,299, including 1,936 permanently stationed at Incirlik air base, military officials said.