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Provide Comfort, Kurdistan, 5 Apr 1991-Dec 1994

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Operation Provide Comfort

Following Desert Storm, the entire Kurdish population of Iraq attempted to flee the country to the north out of fear that Saddam Hussein would attempt to exterminate their entire population. Because of political concerns, Turkish officials refused to allow these desperate people permission to cross the border into Turkey. The result was that hundreds of thousands of Kurds were essentially trapped on barren and rocky hillsides, vulnerable to not only Hussein?s forces, but to the harsh elements as well. Without basic necessities, to include access to water, food and medical supplies, hundreds of Kurds were dying each week. In April of 1991, President George Bush made the decision to provide relief and protection for these beleaguered people. Smith was given the task of rapidly establishing and deploying a Joint Force whose mission was to ?stop the dying.? Literally overnight, Operation ?Provide Comfort? was born. In less than 48 hours from receiving the order to ?do something?, cargo and fighter aircraft were re-deployed to bases in southern Turkey where they began delivering humanitarian supplies. Over a period of a few weeks a US led coalition force was deployed into northern Iraq, resettlement areas constructed and a de-militarized zone established for the protection of the Kurds.

The massive defeat of the Iraqi military machine tempted the Iraqi Kurds to revolt against the Baghdad regime. Encouraged by American radio broadcasts to rise up against their ?dictator?, the Kurds of northern Iraq rebelled against a nominally defeated and certainly weakened Saddam Hussein in March of 1991. Shortly after the war ended, Kurdish rebels attacked disorganized Iraqi units and seized control of several towns in northern Iraq. From the town of Rania, this sedition spread quickly through the Kurdish north. Fear of being drawn into an Iraqi civil war and possible diplomatic repercussions precluded President Bush from committing US forces to support the Kurds. Within days Iraqi forces recovered and launched a ruthless counteroffensive including napalm and chemical attacks from helicopters. They quickly reclaimed lost territory and crushed the rebellion.

Knowing the possible repercussions of further actions by Iraq, more than one million refugees headed toward the mountains of Iran and Turkey. Conditions deteriorated rapidly as crowds grew by the hour. There was no food, shelter, or water. It was still winter in the mountains, with temperatures plunging far below freezing each night. Press reports indicated as many as 3 million people fleeing, with the Iraqi Army still in pursuit. By April 2nd over a million Kurds had fled Iraq (approx. 800,000 Kurds in Iran, 300,000 in southeastern Turkey and another 100,000 along the Turkish/Iraq border. By the first week of April, 800 to 1,000 people, mostly the very young and the very old, were dying each day.

On 3 April 1991, the Security Council passed United Nations Resolution 687. This document reaffirmed the need to be assured of Iraq?s peaceful intentions in the light of its unlawful invasion and occupation of Kuwait, and prohibited Iraq from manufacturing or using weapons of mass destruction.

The United Nations then passed resolution 688 on 5 April 1991. This document condemned Iraqi repression and asked member states to assist the Kurds and other refugees in northern Iraq with a demand for Iraq to cooperate with these relief efforts. The dilapidated conditions of some 500,000 refugees in the freezing remote mountains in southeastern Turkey prompted President Bush to order the United States European Forces to direct immediate relief assistance.

Joint Task Force Provide Comfort was formed on 6 April 1991 and deployed to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, to conduct humanitarian operations in northern Iraq. Maj Gen James L. Jamerson, the USAFE deputy chief of staff for operations, commanded the effort. After British and French cargo aircraft arrived the next day, he redesignated the organization as a Combined Task Force. The task force dropped its first supplies to Kurdish refugees on 7 April. The result of President Bush?s order and UN resolution 688, culminated in a coalition of 13 nations with material contributions from 30 countries working under the command and control of the Coalition Task Force. Although many nations ultimately contributed to the operation, the primary countries involved were the US, the United Kingdom, France, and Turkey.

On 16 April 1991, the President of the US, authorized by UN resolution 688, expanded Operation Provide Comfort to include multinational forces with the additional mission of establishing temporary refuge camps in northern Iraq. On 17 April, when it had become apparent that a ground presence in northern Iraq was necessary, Lt Gen John M. Shalikashvili, US Army, replaced General Jamerson as commander.

Two subordinate joint task forces (JTFs) were also established to facilitate the mission. JTF ?Alpha? spread throughout the mountains of southeast Turkey, headquartered in Silopi, was responsible for alleviating the dying and suffering while stabilizing the situation. Commanded by BG Richard Potter, USA, JTF Alpha was composed primarily of the 10th Special Forces (SF) Group. The second component, JTF ?Bravo?, centered on the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) commanded by MG Jay Garner, USA. Its mission was to prepare the town of Zakho, in northern Iraq, for the incoming Kurds and facilitate their eventual transfer back to their homes. An important part of this mission was the ?seamless? transfer of responsibility over to NGOs.

Task force members on the ground built refugee camps and maintained a security zone in northern Iraq to protect the Kurds from the Iraqi military. Air units operating from Incirlik enforced a no-fly zone above the 36th parallel while providing air cover for friendly forces on the ground. Aircraft from Incirlik and other bases in eastern Turkey dropped desperately needed supplies to the Kurds.

No one knew what Iraq's reaction to this "invasion" would be. Therefore, the task force left nothing to chance during the airdrop missions. Flights of A-10s preceded the cargo planes, looking for any sign of resistance on the ground. Meanwhile, F-15s and F-16s patrolled the skies above to negate any threat from the air. An E-3 orbited the area to observe the situation and control the fighters, while KC-135s provided aerial refueling. Once a forward airstrip opened in late April, however, airdrops were no longer necessary.

Operation PROVIDE COMFORT (OPC) sought the achievement of two goals: To provide relief to the refugees, and to enforce the security of the refugees and the humanitarian effort. These two goals were maintained from April to September 1991 by the CTF. During this time it flew over 40,000 sorties, relocated over 7000,000 refugees, and restored 70-80 percent villages destroyed by the Iraqis. In addition to these achievements, the aircraft participating faced many dangers.

Combined Task Force (CTF) Provide Comfort would oversee the building of shelters and distribution of supplies, ensure order, and provide security throughout this area. The provision of security was essential to get the Kurds to move from the mountains back to their homes and transfer the responsibility for them from the military to international agencies. The camps were designed to reflect the cultural realities of the Kurds. They were built around five-person tents, a 66-person tent neighborhood (Zozan); a 1,056-person tent village (Gund); a 2,500-person tent community (Bajeer) and in the center, the community center and administration area.

Two disparate types of operations were being conducted simultaneously during Operation Provide Comfort. One was the humanitarian effort and the other the security operation. In many ways they competed and conflicted with one another. The staff ran these as concurrent operations and often had to set aside specific times to focus totally on one operation or the other. Because of conflicting priorities, movement of relief supplies and humanitarian forces competed with the movement of security equipment, ammunition, materiel, and forces. Security operations had to precede humanitarian operations to dear areas of mines and potential hostile forces. While most civilian relief agendas grew more comfortable working alongside military forces performing humanitarian tasks, they were not comfortable around gun-toting security forces.

As Operation Provide Comfort matured, many GO, IO, NGO and PVO participating independently in the relief/humanitarian efforts eventually, if somewhat reluctantly, demanded access to the JTF CMOC so they could coordinate their efforts and thus reduce redundancy within their area of responsibility (AOR). Their access to the JTF commander was unobstructed; the CMOC, located across the street from the JTF HQ at Incirlik Air Base, facilitated 24-hour access. The CMOC comprised an augmentation element of USAR CA personnel from the 353rd CA Command which operated under the staff supervision of the JTF Civil-Military Operations officer, BG Don Campbell (commanding general of USEUCOM aligned 353rd CA Command). This JTF CMOC received data from the JTF Joint Operations Center, GO, IO, NGO, and PVO, and developed CMO-related plans in support of the JTF objectives.

By mid-July, the task force pulled out of Iraq but left a residual force in southeastern Turkey to keep the Iraqis in check. A military coordination center remained in Iraq to liaise between the armed forces and civilian relief workers. The UN had assumed responsibility for the refugee camps.

Operation PROVIDE COMFORT I ended on 24 July 1991, and PROVIDE COMFORT II began. Up until this point the task force airdropped 6,154 short tons of supplies, flown in another 6,251 by helicopter, and delivered a further 4,416 tons by truck.
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