Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

As camps in Turkey close, focus turns to Kurds in Iran

The last Kurdish refugee camp in Turkey officially closed Saturday, marking the end of a highly successful humanitarian mission along the Turkey-Iraq border. As American forces prepared to withdraw from the border region, however, attention began to focus on the plight of hundreds of thousands of Kurds still encamped in Iran. Helping them return to their homes is not part of the mission the United States and allied forces have assumed.

The 11-nation humanitarian effort that resolved the Kurdish crisis in Turkey is being hailed here as a model of cooperation among governments, armies and private relief agencies. But the refugee problem in Iran hinges on talks now under way in Baghdad between Kurdish leaders and President Saddam Hussein's government.

"For a series of reasons that are really quite complicated, the Kurds in Iran do not seem ready to go home yet," Pierre Francois Pirlot, a senior U.N. representative in northern Iraq, said in an interview Saturday. "We have a team touring the Iran area now. We expect to hear from them in a few days."

Pirlot said the United Nations and private relief agencies had spent hundreds of millions of dollars to aid Kurdish refugees in recent weeks.

"If you add the cost of what the American army and other armies have contributed, it could easily be over a billion dollars," he said.

Some allied military officers have said that as many as 40,000 Kurds, most of them women and children, may have died during their dramatic flights out of Iraq and in the weeks before foreign aid reached them. Now, however, aid administrators say that estimate is probably far too high. The true figure, all acknowledge, probably will never be known.

The closing of the seventh and last refugee camp in Turkey, situated near the remote border town of Cukurca, represented a triumph for American and allied forces here.

"It's hard to believe that only a few weeks ago, there were real fears that this situation might drag on not only for months, but for years, and that it would become a disaster like the Palestinian problem," said Bernd Jaenicke, a German relief administrator working at the refugee camp in Zakho, Iraq. "The problem is not yet fully settled, but it is no longer a real emergency."

According to official American figures released Saturday, there are 49,250 Kurds still in Zakho and along the Turkey-Iraq border. They are all that remain of the 450,000 who were there at the peak of the crisis six weeks ago.

The 21,500 American soldiers who were sent to help the Kurds have already begun flying back to their bases. No date has been set for withdrawal, but officers have speculated that the mission will last only a few more weeks.

In the Iraqi city of Dohuk, a Kurdish center, brisk business was being conducted at the sprawling bazaar Saturday.

Dohuk was all but abandoned when the Kurdish refugee exodus began in early April, but more than half its 300,000 residents have returned, and more are streaming in every day.

Residents said they realize that U.S. and allied troops soon will be withdrawn. They are confident that U.N. guards will remain to protect them.

Some foreign relief workers plan to remain in Dohuk for a month or longer, but many are preparing to leave this week. Among the relief workers, however, pride at having helped the Kurds who fled to Turkey is mixed with frustration at their inability to reach those who remain in Iran.

"We hear that there are still lots of problems there, but that wasn't part of our script, unfortunately," said Gus Kontouras of the International Rescue Committee, who is in Iraq working for the U.S. Agency for International Development. "We tried to organize a flight over there, but the military command wouldn't authorize it because it's outside the mission we've been given."

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran, and neither government has rushed to help Kurds on Iranian soil. American officials do not want to undertake a major effort in a country that they still consider hostile, and where they have not been invited.

Many of the Kurdish refugees in Iran are from towns outside the security zone established in northern Iraq, and are afraid to return to their homes without security guarantees.

Perhaps the most important reason why refugees have not returned from Iran in large numbers is that their leaders do not want them to. Once the refugees are safely settled back in Iraq, Kurdish leaders will lose much of their leverage in talks with Iraq's government.

Kurdish leaders are shuttling back and forth from Baghdad to their traditional homeland in northeast Iraq, trying to arrange a form of autonomy substantial enough to satisfy their people without being too radical for Hussein to accept.