DAHUK, Iraq — Ragtag refugees returned in the thousands to the northern Iraqi city of Dahuk on Saturday, after U.S.-led forces moved in to reassure the Kurds that it is safe to go back to the homes they fled in panic two months ago.
Refugees rode in dozens of hired Iraqi trucks in a ragged procession along the main highway into Dahuk from the mountainous Turkish border 47 miles to the north.
"This is a real breakthrough. It's a great day," said Staffan de Mistura, head of the U.N. relief operation for the Kurds who fled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's wrath after the collapse in March of their post-Gulf War uprising.
More than two dozen U.S. troops riding in Army Humvees, the first of a contingent of about 170 soldiers and relief workers, entered the shattered city Friday to begin restoration work.
They will stay for three weeks, running refugee reception centers, clearing Dahuk of war rubble and unexploded ammunition and restoring essential electricity, water, sanitation and medical services.
Dahuk became a ghost town when Iraq crushed the post-Gulf War Kurdish rebellion in March and sent most of its 350,000 residents fleeing north. But thousands have returned since Iraqi troops and secret police left under an agreement reached Wednesday with the allies.
The Geneva headquarters of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said earlier that only about 123,000 of the half million Kurds who had fled to the Turkish border were still there--and most of them were from Dahuk.
More than 1.3 million other Kurdish refugees are still in camps in Iran.
"If the shuttles continue like this, I expect there will be no more Kurdish refugees (in the coalition security zone) in a week to 10 days," De Mistura told reporters.
More than 90% of Dahuk's 150,000 people fled during the uprising against Hussein after his crushing defeat by the U.S.-led multinational forces in the Gulf War.
Coalition troops occupied Iraq's northern fringe in April to shield the refugee Kurds from the Iraqi army.
Encouraged by allied guarantees, most Kurds from the Turkish frontier have since returned home except for those from Dahuk, who held out until the coalition stretched its security zone south to the provincial capital Friday.
Heavily armed Iraqi troops and security police withdrew to about 13 miles south of the city a few days ago to pave the way for the allied entry and reassure the refugees.
Reymond Naimy, UNICEF coordinator in the security zone, said about half of Dahuk's people had returned.
Separately, an American soldier died of injuries from a land mine explosion in northern Iraq, the allied command said. His name was withheld until relatives could be notified.