The first 250 Kurdish refugees moved into a new U.S.-built camp on Saturday, and U.S. officials expressed hopes that others could soon be coaxed into returning to their homeland in northern Iraq.
The first arrivals, all able-bodied men, were brought by helicopter to the new camp outside Zakho from the sprawling, squalid settlement of Isikveren high in the mountains spanning the Tur-kish-Iraqi border."We thought we would never come back to Iraq," said refugee Obaid Ali, 21. Some of the men kissed the ground upon landing, a U.S. officer said.
In addition to those brought in by helicopter, a few refugees began returning from the mountains on their own, on foot. British Royal Marines Lt. Col. Jonathan Thomson said 110 people passed through a checkpoint on Saturday morning alone.
But reporters saw Kurdish guerrillas blocking some would-be returnees, telling them it was not yet safe in the "safe haven" being set up by allied forces.
Among those making their way down from the mountains through rough terrain were children, the elderly, people on crutches and parents carrying infants and a few possessions. Many returning Iraqis looked thin and their clothes had been reduced to rags during their stay in the primitive camps on the mountains.
"Everybody smile. You're back home," Sgt. 1st Class Gilbert Shadow of Oconomowoc, Wis., an Army Special Forces member, told a group of refugees who sat cross-legged in the grass.
The arriving refugees settled in, drinking cans of fruit juice and eating military field rations. Others rinsed their faces and slurped handfuls of clean water from a tank among the tents.
Shadow said more men had volunteered to come to the camp than the helicopters could carry.
He said the men were "ecstatic" when they first caught sight of Zakho from the air, and some of the men kissed the ground when they landed.
Only men, rather than whole families, are being brought to the camp initially. Allies officials hope the refugees will want to bring their families in when they have decided for themselves they are not in danger from Iraqi forces.
On the edges of the unfenced camp, U.S. Marines are manning mortar positions, and there are allied troops in the hills and low ridges beyond.
Groups of 250 men will be transported from the mountains to the camp daily until the population reaches 1,000.
After that, if the Kurdish leadership is satisfied with the conditions, women and children will be brought down en masse as fast as tents and other facilities for them can be put up, officials say.
In the meantime, Turkish officials are moving some of the refugees from the mountain camps to better-equipped settlements at lower elevations.