WASHINGTON -- The United States began withdrawing the last of its troops from northern Iraq yesterday but warned Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that "residual" allied combat forces would be poised to strike quickly if he renews a reign of terror against Iraqi Kurds.
Iraqi army and paramilitary forces will be barred from entering a designated security zone for the Kurds in northern Iraq, and any use of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft in that area will not be tolerated by the United States and its allies, said Pete Williams, the Pentagon's chief spokesman.
"The coalition retains a clear interest in peace within Iraq and is willing to respond militarily to Iraqi actions that disturb the peace," he told reporters.
Mr. Williams declared a formal end to the military's humanitarian
relief effort to help more than 500,000 Kurds who escaped to the Turkish mountains after pro-Hussein forces crushed their rebellion in March, after the Persian Gulf war. President Bush, who had steered clear of intervening until the death toll among Kurdish refugees began to soar, ordered U.S. forces on April 17 to protect the Kurds.
"The situation is stable, and we expect it to remain so," said Mr. Williams, expressing the administration's satisfaction that health care, commerce and government services have been restored in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
All the coalition forces in northern Iraq -- 3,300 troops, including 1,500 Americans -- will be out by Monday, he said.
In Baghdad, where President Saddam Hussein has brought in top Kurdish leaders to discuss an agreement on autonomy, the Iraqi government had no immediate reaction to the announcement. But one official told the Associated Press: "We're celebrating."
The last stage of troop withdrawals came the same day that a United Nations delegation in Baghdad said it would recommend to the U.N. Sanctions Committee that Iraq be allowed to sell some oil to buy food and medicine. One delegation member said a quick announcement of a deal with the Kurds "would be very helpful" in Iraq's bid to ease international trade sanctions imposed during the gulf crisis.
The "residual" force that the allies hope will deter renewed repression of the Kurds will be centered on a multinational brigade of 2,500 to 3,000 troops, consisting mostly of Americans, Mr. Williams and other officials said. The brigade will include a combat helicopter battalion and a "reinforced infantry battalion" with artillery, infantry, combat engineer and special operations units.
In addition, aircraft will be assigned for reconnaissance, air strikes and close air support of ground troops from the USS Forrestal carrier battle group in the eastern Mediterranean and air bases near Iraq, Pentagon officials said.
France, Italy and Britain have announced that they will join the new strike force, and U.S. military officials said that the Netherlands,Spain and Belgium were expected to participate. Turkish Foreign Minister Safa Giray said yesterday that his country would offer troops to the multinational force, although the ministry has said that Turkish units would not join any cross-border operations.
Although Turkey apparently has yet to give its formal consent, U.S. military officials said they expected the strike force to be stationed in Turkey near the Iraqi border at Silopi and at Batman, 87 miles northwest of the border, and at Incirlik Air Base, where U.S. Air Force fighter aircraft already are based.
In the northern Iraqi town of Zakho, Kurdish leader Merani Fadel told the Reuters news agency that coalition troops should stay until an autonomy pact was settled. Thousands of Kurdish refugees had returned to the allied security zone, but many were still afraid to return to their homes outside it, he said.
The departure of coalition troops will mark the first complete withdrawal of foreign combat forces from postwar Iraq. U.S. troops who defeated Iraqi forces in Kuwait and then occupied southern Iraq, where Mr. Hussein managed to suppress a postwar uprising by Shiite Muslims, left the area to U.N. supervision in early May and halted combat air patrols there.
But Mr. Williams emphasized that Mr. Hussein would not be regaining full control of the designated security zone in northern Iraq, an area north of the 36th parallel that has been a haven for the Kurds.
Not only will Iraqi aircraft be threatened by coalition air forces, but all Iraqi soldiers, special police and military border guards will be barred from the security zone, he said. "The coalition will undertake air reconnaissance and other air operations above the 36th parallel as needed," Mr. Williams said.
Pentagon officials said these air patrols would be dedicated to protecting the Kurds. Other aerial surveillance -- including efforts to watch Baghdad, track suspected movements of Iraqi nuclear weapons materials and pinpoint potential targets for possible U.S. military action -- will continue to be assigned to other aircraft deployed in the gulf region, a senior military officer said.
By June 1, as many as 12,883 U.S. military personnel participated in the Kurdish relief effort and constituted the majority of an overall multinational force of 21,701, Pentagon figures show. When the United Nations took over the relief effort last month, U.S. forces began to leave. There were roughly 1,500 yesterday.
Asked how long the new strike force would remain in place, Mr. Williams declined to give a specific answer. "We will leave this force in place as long as appropriate," he said.
At the United Nations, meanwhile, diplomats said the five permanent Security Council members warned Iraq's U.N. ambassador yesterday that Baghdad must disclose its nuclear program by July 25 or face serious consequences.