By the end of their first day establishing a safe haven in northern Iraq for Kurdish refugees, U.S. Marines had bid goodbye to Iraqi troops and set up more than 30 blue-and-white tents in a lush meadow.
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 about 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 placed on putting together allied-protected settlements in the Zakho area was highlighted by an incident Sunday on the Iraqi-Turkish border, where refugees are still perishing despite ever-increasing aid.
At a camp near Cukurca, an Iraqi Kurdish refugee was shot and killed by Turkish troops who opened fire to quell a food riot.
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 Kurdish refugees who crossed into Iran after fleeing a failed rebellion. Those refugees are being cared for principally by Iran.
Two battalions of Iraqi soldiers pulled out of the Zakho area on 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.
Some 400 Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit crossed into Iraq from Turkey on Saturday to secure the refugee zone and began work Sunday on putting together the first of some 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 perhaps several other Western nations.
Marine Col. James Jones, who heads the 24th, said the U.S.-controlled zone would cover an area ranging 35 miles to the east of Zakho.
U.S. authorities in Turkey could not confirm that the Iraqis had withdrawn the 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.
Al-Thawra noted that Iraq itself has signed an agreement with the United Nations to channel aid to Kurdish refugees.
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.