By Ron Jensen
Stars & Stripes
INCIRLIK AB, Turkey – The number of Kurdish refugees camped in the mountains of northern Iraq has dropped from a peak of 400,000 to fewer than 60,000, the head of Operation Provide Comfort said Thursday.
“I think we’re further along than in my most optimistic dreams I had envisioned we would be at this time,” said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. John M. Shalikashvili.
“I would think that in the next 10 days or so, we should have all existing camps empty and have them all (the Kurds) in way stations, their own home or the temporary camps.”
Shalikashvili, who normally serves as the deputy commander of USAREUR, said the key to easing the misery in the camps was the arrival of the 10th Special Forces Group, including troops from Bad Tolz, Germany. Those soldiers provided the first assessment of the needs in the camps.
“It was only at that point that we were able to turn it around,” he said in an interview. Once the starving stopped, the mission turned to resettling the Kurds, to their homes if possible, but definitely out of the mountains where the summer heat would dry up water sources and increase disease.
That was done, the general said, by negotiating with the Iraqi government for space in northern Iraq. This, too, went easier than he expected.
“When I went into that first discussion with the Iraqi government, I had no idea what their reaction would be to our insistence that we move coalition forces into Zakho and into the valley,” he said. “And when we asked them to withdraw to an arc of some 30 kilometers around Zakho, I was very encouraged when they did.”
The discussions stalled a bit when the coalition asked to extend the zone of protection to include the provincial capital of Dohuk. The goal was to leave the city in Iraqi control but under conditions attractive enough to lure the Kurds back.
That agreement was reached this week. The Iraqi military has pulled out, but the civilian structure of the city has remained in place and will operate services.
“I think it’s essential that (it) be so,” the general said, noting that the operations Combined Task Force did not want the additional task of operating a city government for a settlement of more than 200,000.
Still unresolved is the issue of continued protection for the Kurds who have indicated they will be forced to return to the mountains if they are left with no guaranteed protection.
“I think the security is a very important part of the operation,” Shalikashvili said. “Our mission is a humanitarian one — to bring them out of the mountains. And that is nearing completion.
“In the meantime, I am very hopeful that all of the governments that are involved in this operationare working very hard to find the right kind of security mechanism that will allow the coalition forces to leave. I think it is not in the best interest of anyone for us to stay here longer than is absolutely necessary.”
The solution must come from the Kurds and the Iraqi government, he said.
“It isn’t an easy answer to find a security arrangement that will allow the Kurds to live in peace in their own country,” he said. “But I think what we are doing now is providing time for all of that to be worked.
“It is a thorny issue. I do not think the answer is to accept a long-term presence of coalition forces in this part of the world.”
U.S. troops have begun redeploying from Operation Provide Comfort, but the total assigned to the Iraq-Turkey border region remains about the same because of new airivals, military spokesmen said.
The troops who have left to date are largely from the Special Forces stationed at Bad Tolz. There are more than 11,000 U.S. troops in the border region and security zone.
Shalikashvili, 54, said the secret to the success of Operation Provide Comfort has been the international involvement and the support of the Turkish government. “It is really great fun to stand back and watch those super soldiers go at a task with as much enthusiasm as they are doing this,” he said.
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