Is It Too Late?

Accused of seducing the Kurds into rebellion and then abandoning them, Bush orders a massive relief effort in a race against cold and starvation

In the cold, steep mountains of northern Iraq, swarms of fearful Kurds fled the wrath of Saddam Hussein, risking their lives on roads to nowhere. It was an overnight crisis: perhaps 2 million people abandoning their homes on the spur of a perilous moment. No one had foreseen such a disaster, not even the Kurds themselves, most of whom ran off into the hills without adequate food or clothing. Within days, the camps of the Iraqi dispossessed rivaled the Cambodian killing fields and the famine-scoured wastelands of Ethiopia. Many of the Kurds fled to Iran, while others clung to bleak mountainsides on a tortuous trek to Turkey, beaten guerrilla fighters sharing intense privation with city-soft civilians. The unfolding tragedy was "almost beyond belief," as Secretary of State James Baker put it after an edgy seven-minute visit to a refugee camp on the Turkish frontier.

Once again, there were accusatory cries for U.S. help. American forces quickly organized a massive, open-ended relief operation stretching the full length of Iraq, with supply overflights from bases in Saudi Arabia to refugee camps in Turkey. Washington and its allies proclaimed an informal "safe haven" in the north to protect the Kurds from Saddam's revenge. The White House credited itself with launching "the largest U.S. relief effort in modern military history." It wasn't nearly enough. The Americans and British conducted a hit-or-miss airlift, dropping supplies that fed only some of the Kurds-and killed a few of them, crushed to death by pallets descending on parachutes. Trucks churned along muddy roads with additional supplies as international agencies slowly got their missions into gear. But for uncountable thousands of Kurds, who faced what one relief official called "a steeply rising mortality curve," the rescue effort was probably too late.

Again George Bush had to fend off persistent charges that his administration seduced the Kurds into rebellion and then abandoned them to the stern demands of geopolitics. "I am not going to involve any American troops in a civil war in Iraq," the president said testily amid mounting complaints about his hands-off policy. U.S. forces began a quick withdrawal from their zone of occupation in southern Iraq last week, after the United Nations formally declared a cease-fire in the Persian Gulf War. Bush had refused to intervene on the side of the rebels partly out of fear that Iraq would split into pieces, threatening the stability of the entire region. American forces stood by as Saddam's resurgent Army chased the Kurds from their homes and scourged the Shiite Muslim rebels in the south. Now, with the refugee effort in the northern mountains, the United States took a step toward the very fragmentation of Iraq that Bush had paid such a high price to avoid.

Under pressure from his key allies, including Turkish President Turgut Ozal and British Prime Minister John Major, the administration reluctantly agreed to set up a haven in northern Iraq for hundreds of thousands of Kurds who were trying to cross into overburdened Turkey. Major's original proposal for more formal "security enclaves" was endorsed by the European Community, but it troubled the administration. Washington feared the precedent that might be set for outside intervention in trouble spots like the West Bank or Northern Ireland, where America's friends preside over hostile populations. Still, the administration recognized that something had to be done about the plight of the Kurds, if only for domestic political reasons. "We wrote the civil war off," admitted a top Bush aide, "but we can't write off the refugees."

Bush's civilian advisers wanted to keep the boundaries of the haven as vague as possible, to make sure that it would not look like a legal entity. But Gen. Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reported that the military commanders of Operation Provide Comfort needed a more precisely defined area of operations. Drawing a line along the 36th parallel, Washington declared northern Iraq offlimits to Saddam's Army, a warning that was backed up by the power of considerable U.S. air, naval and ground forces still in the region. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater insisted that "nobody wants to try to establish another country within Iraq." Yet by invoking the old international-law doctrine of "humanitarian intervention," the United States had set up a zone where Saddam's writ does not run, an area that will remain outside Iraqi sovereignty for as long as the Kurdish refugee crisis lasts--which could be indefinitely.

In southern Iraq, Americans were moving in the opposite direction, preparing to return to Saddam's control most of the territory they occupied during the war. Tens of thousands of Shiite refugees feared that the dictator's gain would be their loss. "Saddam Hussein will slaughter all of us," predicted Abdul Khalid al-Hamadi, a refugee from Basra. As U.S. officials saw it, that was not their concern. About 300 U.N. observers, protected by five companies of neutral-country infantry, were moving into a buffer zone along the Iraq-Kuwait border, and Washington assumed that refugees whose lives were genuinely threatened could take shelter there. Even so, devastated southern Iraq faced an immense human disaster. "In some cities of the south, you've got sewage floating in the streets, and women are drawing water from contaminated sources," said Renny Nancholas, a British Red Cross official who recently toured the area. "If a cholera epidemic takes hold, we could be talking about tens of thousands of people dying."

For the moment, that potential calamity was dwarfed by the crisis up north. More than half of the refugees fled to Iran, which has a restless Kurdish minority of its own. The Iranians clearly "didn't want these Kurds," said an aid official, but he added that "once they're in, the Iranians don't send them back." Iran, which absorbed a wave of refugees in 1988, after Saddam used a poison gas on Kurdish rebels, has developed an efficient relief system. "We are amazed by the work done in Iran," said Alfredo Witschi, a Mideast representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Iranians warned, however, that they were nearing the end of their resources and would soon need international assistance.

One reason for the severity of the refugee crisis along the Turkish frontier was the harshness of the terrain. The mountains are cold and wet at this time of year, and the region is poor, with few roads or airfields. "It's like you suddenly have a million people on the mountains of the moon," said Robert DeVecchi, executive director of the New York-based International Rescue Committee. The climate is so inhospitable that even disease does not thrive among the refugees there. "People will be dying of starvation and cold before getting any diseases," said Dr. Marcel Roux, a physician who recently visited the area for the relief organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders). "If you don't eat, your body temperature goes down, and you die. You don't have time to get pneumonia."

"This is going to be like the Berlin airlift, but much more complex," Lionel Rosenblatt, a private relief official, said after visiting the camps near Cukurca, Turkey. So far, it wasn't going well. "We can't bring relief quickly enough," admitted DeVecchi. "The death rate is going to soar within the next couple days." The turks were reluctant hosts. In 1988, when they took in Kurdish refugees, the West reneged on promises of help. This time, the Turks suspected they would be left holding a bigger bag. Turkey also had a problem with its own Kurdish minority, including a low-level insurgency led by the Kurdish Labor Party.

Under the circumstances, the only organization with enough muscle to provide instant help was the Pentagon. The U.S. European Command, based in Stuttgart, Germany, quietly took over the entire relief operation. And Washington tactually assumed responsibility for protecting the Kurds from further attack by Saddam's forces. "We do not expect any interference from the man in Baghdad," Bush said on Thursday. "He knows better than to intervene." The Americans warned Iraq not to interfere with the havens-or with the U.S. relief flights anywhere in Iraqi airspace.

The airdrops were only the first phase in an ambitious relief operation. This week U.S. forces are scheduled to move into a second phase of "sustained effort," during which engineers will build forward supply bases, some inside Iraq. By the end of the month, the Americans expect to have a logistical system in place that will be able to provide 700,000 people with shelter, medical care and at least one meal a day. "At this sort of thing," said an Army colonel, "we're the best there is."

In theory, the system will be turned over to private relief organizations once it is up and running. Almost no one in the Pentagon expects that to happen. When the havens have been stabilized, the United States and its allies may find it hard to walk away from them. "The truth is that we are now committed to some level of continuing relief and protection of the Kurds until there's a political settlement between the Kurds until there's a political settlement between the Kurds and the leadership in Baghdad," said a British official. Given the turmoil in Iraq, that could take a very long time.

Is It Too Late? | News