A new allied push to repatriate Iraqi Kurds got off to a slow start Saturday as both the refugees and trucks to transport them failed to materialize, officials said.
Also Saturday, an Iraqi general met a Kurdish rebel leader on a stretch of no-man's land in the first face-to-face talks between the two sides on the future of the provincial capital of Dohuk.And another Kurdish rebel leader met with President Saddam Hussein to discuss an autonomous homeland for the Kurds in northern Iraq. The official Iraqi news agency gave no details about the discussions.
In another development, the head of the U.N. relief effort, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, said the United Nations plans to expand its humanitarian operations in northern Iraq. He spoke in Turkey after touring several refugee camps.
Saturday marked the start of the full-scale allied repatriation effort announced last week, dubbed Operation Gallant Provider.
At a way station in Kanimasi in northern Iraq, the allies began operating a fleet of rented trucks Saturday. British Royal Marines Maj. Damian McKinney said the goal was to move 7,000 refugees a day.
But by midafternoon, only 1,200 refugees had come down from the mountains, McKinney said, fewer than in recent days. Many refugees said they were still afraid to go home.
Also, the U.S. military had hired 200 trucks to transport refugees, but only 28 arrived at Kanimasi. U.S. officials said later Saturday the 200 vehicles would be spread among a series of way stations.
The way station, set on a plain beneath the soaring mountains, offered a multitude of services for the refugees. Canadian military doctors examined skinny children, U.S. Marines prepared to gas up cars and British Royal Marines distributed rations.
The allies have carved out a protected zone in northern Iraq for the refugees, but it does not include Dohuk, which is still occupied by the Iraqis. Dohuk natives are believed to make up at least half the more than 450,000 Iraqis who fled. McKinney said "they won't move" until the city is free of Iraqi troops.
On Saturday, Iraqi Brig. Gen. Nushwan Danoun met with Fadhail Merani, leader of the rebel Kurdish Democratic Party, to discuss some sort of compromise status for the city. The meeting, arranged by U.S. Army Col. Dick Naab, took place between the allied and Iraqi front lines north of Dohuk.
It was "a first step toward peace and security in Dohuk," Merani said afterward. But it was unclear whether anything was actually decided.