Operation PROVIDE COMFORT: Civil Affairs Operations in Northern Iraq, 1991-1992

By Colonel (ret.) Patrick Carlton





"The Secretary of Defense has directed the execution of

Operation PROVIDE COMFORT-1991"

Execute Order: Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [i]


"...From the youngest soldier, sailor, airman, and marine...to the more seasoned officer, the enthusiasm, the expertise, the cooperative spirit, the compassion that they all brought is

a monument to each...military force that participated.... their respective countries have every reason to be very proud of these young men and women."


LTG John M. Shalikashvili, 24 June 1991[ii]



In early March 1991, disaffected Shiite Muslims in the South, along with Kurdish separatists in the North of Iraq, launched a series of attacks aimed at unseating Saddam Hussein, ruler of that troubled country. At least in part, their actions were based on encouragement, perhaps more perceived than actual, that they had received from the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom. Those governments were anxious that Saddam Hussein be called to account for his ill-considered and tragic acts, so devastating to Kuwait. However, it should be noted that President George H.W. Bush had made no promises of support of any kind to Kurdish representatives, despite their diligent attempts to elicit such assurances.


Taking advantage of the disarray into which the Iraqi Army had fallen in the aftermath of the war in Kuwait, Kurdish warriors attacked and captured the town of Ranya on 4 March, followed, during the next ten days, by Arbil, Dahuk, and Aqra. On 21 March, they captured Kirkuk, reputed to be the wealthiest city in the North. These successes, and the euphoria that accompanied them, were short-lived. On 27 March 1991, Saddam Hussein's forces launched a series of counterattacks which inevitably drove back the lightly armed Peshmerga[i] forces. By 30 March, the Kurdish forces were in rapid retreat, and it was clear that Saddam Hussein had gained the upper hand, striking terror in the hearts of Kurdish non-combatants. Many of these people vividly remembered Saddam Hussein's March 1988 attack on the town of Halabja, in which chemical agents had been used against the helpless inhabitants. An estimated 5000 persons had perished in the attack, one of more than twenty such attacks inflicted upon isolated mountain villages. The stage was set for panic-stricken flight by Kurdish tribesmen and their families.


By the first week of April, it was apparent that the revolt had failed. Thousands of Kurdish people left their homes and streamed Eastward into Iran or Northward into the rugged foothills of the Taurus Mountains.[ii] Traveling by any type of conveyance available, they soon left behind them a trail of abandoned cars, trucks, buses, tractors, and other vehicles that were unable to proceed farther. By 6 April, it was estimated that half a million or more Kurds of all ages and both sexes had reached the Iraqi-Turkish border and were being contained there by Turkish border guards, who had orders to prevent their proceeding further. Since the snows of the previous winter had not yet melted, temperatures were relatively low. Furthermore, many, if not most, of the refugees were town folk, unprepared for the harsh environment they found themselves in. Consequently, early estimates suggested that as many as seven to ten thousand of these people, mostly the very young and the aged, would perish within a matter of days.


The Turkish government found itself in a difficult situation, as host to thousands of unwanted visitors. The Turks and the Kurds had been engaged in hostilities for many years because of repeated Kurdish attempts to establish a separate state on the Turkish-Iraqi border. Nine million ethic Kurds lived within Turkey's borders in 1991, out of slightly more than seventeen million in that nation plus Iraq, Syria, Iran, Lebanon, and the USSR.[iii] Kurds had, over the years, established a reputation as fierce, tribally based warriors whose politics were flexible and whose services were often available to the highest bidder. Indeed, when not engaged with external conflicts, the Kurds had developed the habit of fighting among themselves. The Turks were particularly sensitive in 1991. During the 1988 attacks by Saddam Hussein, many thousands of Kurds had fled into Turkey seeking asylum, some 27,000 of whom presently remained in camps near the Turkish-Iraqi border. The Government of Turkey (GOT) was adamantly opposed to the further admission of large numbers of potentially permanent refugees to add to those already present. Be that as it may, the Turkish villagers and soldiers at the border, touched by the plight of the Kurdish refugees, began distributing such supplies as were available to them, modest and inadequate though they often were. The Turkish Red Crescent (Kizilay) 's regional affiliates quickly marshaled their resources and initiated a food distribution program. The sheer magnitude of the immediate demand and its sudden onslaught gave these early Turkish efforts a somewhat futile appearance. Still, it should not be forgotten that they did the best they could with what they had to offer. According to US Embassy Ankara, the Turkish government's contributions to Operations Provide Comfort (OPC) totaled possibly as much as $48 million during April and May 1991, placing a significant strain upon a country of relatively modest means.[iv] As Lieutenant General (LTG) Shalikashvili stated: "When you look at the tonnages of supplies that were delivered by the Turks...it's really a staggering amount...."[v] The Turks deserve great credit for dealing compassionately and evenhandedly with a politically complex and challenging situation.


Because of the presence of large numbers of members of the media in the region, having arrived to cover the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, the Kurds' plight rapidly became the subject of intense news coverage. President Bush became the subject of searching questions on the moral responsibility of the United States to assist these unfortunate people who, it was said, had staged their uprising because of the President's repeated call for the people of Iraq to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime. Public pressure rose to astonishing intensity in a matter of days, undoubtedly fueled by the constant television coverage being focused on the evolving tragedy. Bush's advisors urged that something be done to relieve the situation. Furthermore, President Turgut Ozal of Turkey made several phone calls to the President seeking assistance from the US in dealing with the situation. Ozal clearly wished to return the Kurds to Iraq as rapidly as possible, fearing that an additional build-up in the Kurdish population would further fuel the fires of separatism and provide an operating base for terrorist groups, chief among them the Partia Karkaris Kurdistan, the Kurdish Workers' Party, known as the PKK. The PKK engaged in regular skirmishing with the Turkish Army and the local police in Eastern Turkey for many years, engendering much ill-will and causing numerous deaths on both sides. They were particularly active around Batman and Diyarbakir, Turkey.[vi]


On 5 April 1991, President Bush announced that the US would provide humanitarian relief in the form of airdropped food, water, and medical supplies. As LTG John Shalikashvili, Commander of the operation, stated, "...the first thing we had to do was stop the dying and the suffering..." as quickly as possible.[vii] An alert order for the deployment of U. S. European Command (USEUCOM) forces was issued by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On 6 April 1991, the first aerial units began to deploy, and initial airdrops of food and water began on 7 April 1991. Within 36 hours, over 27 tons of relief supplies were dropped, an extraordinary accomplishment.