The United States has warned Iraq against any military or ground attacks against allied forces now rushing aid to the Kurdish rebels in southern Iraq, the White House said Wednesday.
Making an unusual appearance before television cameras, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater announced the action, telling reporters that Iraqi diplomats had been so warned in recent days, but that U.S. officials are not anticipating any attacks."The United States warned Iraq this weekend, through its representatives at the United Nations and at its embassy here, not to interfere with humanitarian relief efforts under way in Iraq," Fitzwater said.
He said the Iraqi government was informed that U.S., United Nations and other coalition officials would be operating in the area to distribute massive amounts of food and supplies for the hundreds of thousands of Kurdish rebels who have fled in the wake of devastating Iraqi attacks.
"We expect these officials to be allowed to operate safely and without military threat from Iraq," the spokesman said.
At the same time, however, Fitzwater said the Iraqis "have ceased military activities in that area in the last few days" and "they have not given any indication" there would be any.
"Without going into specific operational instructions, we do not anticipate military threat from Iraqi air or ground forces," he said. "We continue to pursue this matter with U.N. officials. The refugee tragedy must be alleviated."
Fitzwater said the warning pertains to both "air and ground forces" of the Iraqi military, which has used helicopters in recent weeks to drive the rebels from strongholds in the country.
Fitzwater, again battling contentions that the United States - and President Bush, specifically - had abandoned the rebels after urging them to rise up against Saddam Hussein, included the warning in an extensive list of relief efforts now under way.
Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council has delayed ratifying a permanent Persian Gulf cease-fire while it reviews Iraq's written acceptance of the terms for formally ending the war.
The cease-fire, which was to have gone into effect Tuesday afternoon, was put on hold at the last moment when the council asked for a copy of the document in which Iraq's National Assembly accepted the conditions, diplomatic sources said.
The council could take up the matter sometime Wednesday.
The Security Council did, however, approve creating a 1,440-member peacekeeping force once the cease-fire goes into effect.An estimated 270,000 Kurds have fled to Turkey, while another 500,000 have crossed into Iran, the government has said. Well over 400,000 are in northern Iraq, seeking refuge.
Citing in particular a massive airlift dropping supplies into the refugee camps inside Iraq and nearby Turkey, Fitzwater said 34 humanitarian missions had been flown so far, carrying a total cargo of 145 tons of supplies, and an additional 18 missions were scheduled for later Wednesday.
He again cited the U.S. pledges of assistance to date, including the up to $11 million announced last week, and said the White House would ask Congress soon for a supplemental appropriation "to cover additional costs we anticipate."
The amount of the request had not been decided, he added.
Fitzwater's official comment was issued shortly after officials traveling with Secretary of State James Baker in Cairo, Egypt, said Iraq was told to refrain from any flights north of the 36th parallel, which would reach 90 miles deep inside Iraq along its borders with Turkey and Iran.
The United States earlier warned Iraq not to fly airplanes, and shot down two Iraqi fixed-wing aircraft to back up the warning. However, the administration has refused to take the same tack with regard to helicopters, which were used by Saddam to attack rebels.
Bush has said that taking such an action would constitute interference in internal Iraqi politics and would embroil U.S. forces in further combat.
The Bush administration decided Tuesday against a plan for establishing a safe haven inside Iraq for Kurdish refugees. British Prime Minister John Major had pushed the proposal.
Lawmakers who attended a White House session said Bush did not believe such a plan could win U.N. support. A senior White House official said the plan was "going nowhere."
Baker, meanwhile, arrived in Cairo Wednesday to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak after getting Israeli approval for the latest U.S. diplomatic effort.
Baker flew to Cairo after meeting for two hours Wednesday morning with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in Jerusalem.
"There is a long, long way to go," Baker said after Foreign Minister David Levy on Tuesday gave him Israel's approval of peace talks that would be held under U.S. auspices.
Once the war is formally ended and the U.N. peacekeeping force in place, the United States plans to remove its troops from the region in large numbers.
Fitzwater said he expected the full withdrawal of 350,000 American troops in the gulf will begin as early as Friday when the U.N. observer force is expected to be deployed.
Iraq's borders are being flooded with Kurdish and Shiite Muslim refugees fleeing Saddam's repression.
In other developments:
- State Department officials reported small-scale ground clashes between government troops and dissidents in southern and northern Iraq in the previous 24 hours.
- The World Health Organization, saying Kuwait's health-care system is in need of major rebuilding, launched an immediate $4.1 million three-month emergency effort to help rebuild the system and appealed for aid from other nations.
- The Iraqi News Agency said a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross visited the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk Tuesday.
- The Senate Foreign Relations Committee opened hearings on the possibility of trying Iraqi leaders for war crimes. Witnesses said Saddam should be charged with crimes against humanity and tried before an international tribunal.