ZAKHU, Iraq — A first group of 792 Kurdish refugees, fearing reprisals for their ties to U.S. aid groups in northern Iraq, flew out of Turkey on Monday, headed for the American island of Guam and a new life in the United States.
An additional 1,422 Kurds were to be flown to Guam's Anderson Air Force Base aboard five charter flights in the next few days. The airlift, from the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, was expected to be concluded by Thursday, the State Department said.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the United States felt an obligation to the refugees, because Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might "inflict punishment" because of their work for U.S. aid agencies.
Francis Ricciardone, the U.S. Embassy's chief of mission in Turkey, told reporters in Diyarbakir that the Iraqi Kurds will stay in Guam, a U.S. possession in the western Pacific, for two or three months before going to the United States.
Most of the refugees worked as employees of U.S. aid programs and the U.S.-led air operation patrolling a "no-fly" zone for Iraqi aircraft in northern Iraq. Some are reported to have been engaged in U.S. intelligence activities.
They had been holed up in small hotels and private homes waiting to escape since Iraqi troops entered the Western-protected Kurdish area to help the Democratic Party of Kurdistan take the city of Irbil from a rival faction Aug. 31.
Most of the refugees want sanctuary in the United States, and the vast majority are expected to be resettled there, Burns said.
The decision to move the Kurds to Guam enables them to be considered for what is called "parole" into the U.S. without preliminary decisions on visas and refugee status that would be necessary if they were processed overseas.