Pickup trucks, trailers hauled by farm tractors and buses with broken windshields wind down steep mountain roads, bringing thousands of Kurdish refugees one step closer to home.

The arrival of the first ramshackle caravans in the Iraqi town of Zakho marked the official start of a crucial stage in the rescue of Kurdish refugees - getting them out of the mountains.About 800,000 Kurds fled to the hills along the Iraq-Turkish border from Saddam Hussein's crackdown on their rebellion more than a month ago.

The return of the first refugees follows efforts by U.S. and other allied officers to convince the Kurds they would be protected - and follows a tentative peace agreement reached in Baghdad between Saddam and Kurd-ish leaders.

U.S. Marines want the refugees out of the mountains by June 1, when the creeks run dry. To meet that goal, about 25,000 people will have to descend each day.

But a U.N. official in Ankara Wednesday expressed concern the move was going too fast.

"We are very concerned this program to repatriate people by the coalition military forces is proceeding very rapidly without due regard to first, the wishes of the people, and second, their returning to a long-term secure situation," said the official with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees speaking on condition of anonymity.

By dusk Tuesday, more than 7,500 Kurds had left their squalid hillside refugee camps to come into the valley.

"They're going home," said U.S. Army Sgt. Paul Harrison, the supervisor of a checkpoint leading into Zakho through which all the Kurdish vehicles pass.

"Last night, we had lights, all the way from this point up the mountain. It was a beautiful sight," he said.

At one point in the day, he said, thousands of people an hour were moving through the checkpoint.

Truckloads of children, their hair matted and buzzing with flies, trundled by. Mothers stared out of the back, some clutching babies to their breasts.

Most of the Kurds passed by the refugee camp of 1,200 tents run by the allies and pitched by U.S. troops on a field of wild wheat and blood-red poppies just outside Zakho.

They decided instead to return home, a decision allied commanders hope many more Kurds will take.


(Additional information)

MP Unit coming home

The Utah Army National Guard's 625th Military Police Company is expected to return from Saudi Arabia to Fort Lewis, Wash., Thursday and should arrive in Salt Lake City early next week.

The 95 members of the Murray-based MP company were called to active duty Dec. 6. "The unit members performed a critical function during the gulf war. They were responsible for guarding 25,000 Iraqi prisoners of war during the ground war and its aftermath," said Lt. Col. Bob Nelson.

Redeployment processing, which usually takes about five days, will be completed at Fort Lewis, leaving the soldiers free to go home as soon as they return to Salt Lake City. A formal welcome-home ceremony will be conducted two to three weeks after they return, Nelson said.