WASHINGTON -- Poised on a ridge near Dohuk, U.S. and allied forces weighed yesterday whether to extend their northern Iraq security zone into the provincial capital itself to accelerate the return of thousands of Kurdish refugees to their homes.
But the United Nations still had not settled on a way to ensure the safety of the returning refugees once allied forces leave, raising the prospect of an indefinite stay by U.S. troops in a widening area of Iraq.
Iraqi forces withdrew from Dohuk yesterday as U.S. troops probed their positions in preparation for a possible move into the city.
A Pentagon official said the bulk of refugees camped along the Iraqi-Turkish border came from either Zakho, which is already secured, or Dohuk.
Thus, securing Dohuk would enable the refugees to return to their homes directly, certain of their safety, without going first to a refugee camp. On the other hand, the official noted, "we're pushing the security zone further."
Allied troops are now building a forward "logistics base" in the area but may not need to build a second refugee camp since so many refugees seem to be heading directly home and using the existing camp as a way station, officials said.
The push toward Dohuk is part of what officials describe as a "gradualist process" in which Iraqis have been moving out as allied forces advance.
"It's better not to push too hard or we might come to a confrontation," the Pentagon official said.
The return of refugees has reduced the population along the Iraqi-Turkish border and inside Turkey to 321,000, according to the State Department, although there does not appear much movement among the more than 1 million refugees along the Iran-Iraq border inside Iran.
This is because the areas of Iraq to which those refugees want to return are not yet secure, the Pentagon official said.
Meanwhile, arrangements for additional U.S. relief flights have been delayed by internal political disputes in Iran.
With no limits announced either on the eventual size of the security zone the allied forces will create or how long the troops will stay, officials were waiting on several developments:
* Talks resuming this week between Kurdish leaders and the Iraqi government on an autonomy settlement;
* Agreement between Iraq and U.N. relief agencies that the returning Kurds will have the protected-person status of refugees;
* Establishment of a U.N. civilian police force to protect the network of way stations and other relief operations.
Allied officials hope the continued pressure of economic sanctions and presence of foreign troops will force Iraq to yield on allowing a police force.