BALOKA BRIDGE, Iraq -- Sweating from the weight of their tents and tea kettles, Kurds plodded down a mountain path yesterday as their return from Turkey grew into a human wave.
British Marines in khaki uniforms handed the returning Kurds cups of sugar water as they took the last 90 steps across the bridge into Iraq after the long, taxing walk from a Turkish refugee camp.
The refugees rested in the shade for a while, then climbed aboard American-leased dump trucks for their free ride back toward an allied-staffed "way station" seven miles farther inside the allied-occupied security zone of northern Iraq.
It was the first day of Operation Gallant Provider, a plan to return 206,000 Kurds from Turkish refugee camps within the next two )) or three weeks.
For many it was a joyless return. "We will return to an empty house, a damaged house, but what can we do?" said Nahouri Mustafa, 47, who said her home in the town of Sarsenk had been looted by Iraqi soldiers.
Judging from the human flow at this and a half-dozen other unofficial border crossings, the allied forces are making headway toward their goal of emptying the camps in Turkey before June 1.
"We had 1,000 people pass here by noon, and then we stopped counting, said British Royal Marine 1st Lt. Tim Cook. "The priority had to be giving them food and water."
What lies ahead for the Kurds now that they are back in Iraq is a far murkier problem.
To the dismay of the allied refugee planners, thousands of Kurds are beginning to huddle in new, unsanitary tent clusters in the foothills. They are refusing to go farther because many of them live in the provincial capital of Dohuk, which remains under Iraqi control.
Dayton Maxwell, the chief of the State Department's Disaster Assistance Response Team, surveyed a spreading tent encampment near the village of Kani Masi and said: "It is starting to pile up here. People don't want to go down any farther. We are coaxing them down, aren't we? But what are we going to do when they get here?"
Plans for allied military forces to move into Dohuk, as the Kurds desired, have been put on hold because the Iraqi military has refused to surrender the city.
Allied negotiators pressed efforts yesterday to make Dohuk an "open city." Under this plan, all military forces would withdraw and the city would be administered by Iraqi civilians under international supervision.
In an effort to persuade Kurdish leaders that such a plan would work, the chief U.S. negotiator arranged for two Kurdish guerrilla leaders to tour Dohuk and meet there with a high-level Iraqi army delegation.
"They appeared to be talking to each other like brothers," said negotiator Richard Naab, a U.S. Army colonel.
At the Baloka bridge, families arrived after an especially rigorous final half-mile climb down the mountain.
"Our mission is to help them pass through," said Capt. Mike Page, 40, the commander of the Royal Marines operation here. "The path here is quite rough. If you're old or carrying a bundle it's hard to keep balance. If you're a mountain goat, you're OK."
So the British Marines form a human bridge when needed, straddling the more precarious ledges to provide support and to hand over bundles, everything from blankets to babies.
"Every day there are dead children brought down. They bring them down to bury them," said Marine 1st Class Simon Fisher, 29.
"The other day we saw a woman coming down the hill on a donkey. She was dead, sitting on the donkey."
Dozens of people finish the walk literally exhausted. It takes a strong person nearly three hours, an average walker four, and many Kurds must work at it all day because they set out already debilitated from weeks of living in tents and drinking foul, diarrhea-producing water.