By the end of their first day establishing a safe haven in northern Iraq for Kurdish refugees, U.S. Marines set up more than 30 tents and had unexpectedly friendly encounters with several Iraqi soldiers.
All day Sunday, dozens of helicopters ferried troops and supplies into Zakho, where refugees now subsisting in perilous mountain camps on the Turkish border are to be transported. Zakho is 20 miles from this border town."We are in the job of saving lives, and we're going to save lives and do a good job of it," said Army Maj. Gen. Jay M. Garner, the senior U.S. commander on the ground in northern Iraq.
The urgency of putting together allied-protected settlements in the Zakho area was highlighted by incidents Sunday and Monday on the Iraqi-Turkish border, where refugees are still dying despite ever-increasing aid.
At a camp near Cukurca, an Iraqi Kurdish refugee was killed Sunday by Turkish troops who opened fire to quell a food riot.
And Monday, two U.S. soldiers were injured when a land mine exploded at a Kurdish camp on the border. The extent of their injuries was not known and their identities weren't released.
Relief officials said most of the estimated 800,000 refugees on the Turkish border have been fed by the international relief effort, but lack sufficient water, medical care and sanitation.
The U.N. high commissioner for refugees said the situation remains "critical" for the estimated 1 million Kurds who crossed into Iran after fleeing a failed rebellion.
Kurdish leaders have been in Baghdad since Friday in peace talks with Saddam Hussein's government, Kurdish rebel spokesmen have said.
A British newspaper Monday reported a potential deal could emerge to give the Kurds an autonomous region in northern Iraq. The Times of London speculated such a region could include the oil center of Kirkuk. Kurdish sources quoted by the newspaper did not outline a proposed deal, and there was no independent comment on the talks by Iraqi or rebel sources.
Two battalions of Iraqi soldiers pulled out of the Zakho area Sunday after Garner met with an Iraqi general and instructed him to withdraw his forces to a point 18 miles south of the town.
Garner told reporters that the meeting, coming two months after Iraq's defeat in the Persian Gulf war by the U.S.-led coalition, was "professional . . . strictly business. It was not confrontational."
U.S. military personnel said the departing Iraqi soldiers they met smiled, waved and offered handshakes. Iraqi border troops also directed the U.S. troops through a minefield and helped detonate several mines near a key border bridge.Some 400 Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit crossed into Iraq from Turkey on Saturday to secure the refugee zone, and began work on putting together the first of six camps President Bush decided to establish after an international outcry over the Kurds' plight.
Hundreds more U.S. troops are expected to join the Marines, along with forces from France, Britain and several other Western nations.
Marine Col. James Jones, who heads the 24th, said the U.S. zone would cover an area ranging 35 miles to the east of Zakho.
U.S. authorities in Turkey could not immediately confirm that the Iraqis had withdrawn the full agreed distance. But Defense Secretary Dick Cheney told CBS Sunday that the Iraqis had retreated and were keeping their distance.
That did not prevent Iraq's state press from lashing out at the arrival of U.S. forces, including a military convoy on Sunday.
"This provocative behavior is blatant interference in Iraq's domestic affairs," wrote Al-Thawra, the voice of the ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party.
Some Marines and refugees were concerned about 200 Iraqi police who were discovered in Zakho on Sunday but later pulled out.
Lt. Col. Bob Flocke, a U.S. military spokesman, called the development contrary to the spirit of the U.S.-Iraqi agreement on setting up the protected zone. But Jones said he did not find the police presence "particularly disturbing."
By afternoon, Marines had set up the tents, provided by the Agency for International Development, and an American flag flew over Zakho.
As the refugee tents were erected, Marine guards took up positions around the camp.
But even as aid continued to arrive in the region, the situation at mountainous border camps remained grim.
Along with the refugee killed by Turkish troops, five refugees were wounded during the riot by a stone-throwing mob at a food distribution point near Cukurca on Sunday, the deputy provincial governor said. Several other refugees have died in similar disturbances this month.
Relief officials at Uzumlu - a camp of about 50,000 people in a mountain basin - spoke of serious shortages of water and medical care. Scores of refugees are dying each day on the border of preventable diseases, relief workers and government officials say.