WASHINGTON -- The United States is delaying withdrawal of its forces from northern Iraq until mid-July while a 500-man United Nations police force is established and allies firm up plans for a residual allied quick-reaction unit nearby, administration officials said yesterday.
Before withdrawal, the United States and its coalition partners are expected to deliver a warning to Iraq, officials said. They refused to disclose its contents, but it presumably would warn against any threat to northern Iraq's Kurdish population or interference with international relief efforts.
Some administration officials had hoped to have all U.S. forces out of northern Iraq by July 4, the date set for a series of welcome-home celebrations and visits to military bases by President Bush. Those hopes have now "gone by the boards," an official said.
The prospect of imminent withdrawal had sparked fears of a renewed exodus by Kurds, whom U.S. and allied forces have been persuading to return to their hometowns without fear of Iraqi retribution.
An official said that the Bush administration is unwilling to state a withdrawal date on record, and that mid-July was probably the earliest it would happen.
Another said that withdrawal was not necessarily contingent on whether the Kurds reach an autonomy agreement with Baghdad.
On Sunday, Masoud Barzani, the leader of the biggest Kurdish group, said that an accord was imminent, but it is not known whether other Kurdish factions will be satisfied with it.
According to reports from Iraq yesterday, other Kurdish leaders said that a major stumbling block is that the accord includes a secret demand that the Kurds cut their ties to the West and help Iraqi President Sadam Hussein battle Shiite dissidents.
The United States, Britain, France and Italy are planning for a residual rapid-deployment force, probably based in Turkey.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said yesterday that the residual force "would remain there for some time to help with any security problems that could develop." There are now 5,749 U.S. military personnel involved in the refugee relief effort, he said.
"The size [of a residual force], how it would be made up, how many of each country, what would its specific assignment be, is being worked on now," he said.
In addition, the European Community is financing a lightly armed 500-man U.N. police force at least through the end of 1991, he said.
Sadako Ogata, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said that after meeting with President Bush at the White House yesterday, "I told the president I was very relieved that the withdrawal is being gradual and that it is going to be another month before you will be withdrawing, because the confidence of the Kurds has to be assured before you withdraw."
A senior administration official told reporters last week that Mr. Hussein's consolidation of power had peaked following his crackdown on Kurds and Shiites and that economic sanctions were now hurting Iraq sufficiently that he could be toppled within a year.
"I do not see signs that he is getting stronger and I think over time he faces some real problems," the official said. "I don't think we're talking years. I think we're talking months."