THREE weeks after the start of the offensive by President Saddam Hussein's Army to recapture northern areas of Iraq controlled by Kurdish rebels, the Iraqi refugee crisis continues to deepen. In southern Iraq, Shiite Muslims are also still fleeing. Their exodus began several weeks before that of the Kurds and has been accelerated amid reports of atrocities committed by troops loyal to Saddam.
Mere figures do not convey the panic, the anguish, and the suffering of the refugees. But the numbers do show how the face of Iraq is being transformed. Of the total Iraqi Kurdish population of three and a half million, up to 3 million are now homeless.
Among the Shiite Muslim population in the south of the country, the numbers are smaller. But even before the Iraqi Army offensive in the north, tens of thousands of Shiites had fled into Iran and into the enclave of southern Iraq occupied by coalition forces.
Of the Kurdish refugees, three-quarters of a million have found shelter in Iran and up to half a million have made their way over the Turkish border. The rest remain in a state of physical hardship and psychological despair in the mountains close to the Iranian and Turkish borders.
All the refugees face a severe shortage of food and exposure to cold weather. United States and French cargo planes started airdropping supplies to them April 8, but many are ill, and increasing numbers of them are dying. The plight of homeless families who have fled into the mountains is becoming more desperate by the hour.
The reports circulating among people in the mountains north and east of Arbil speak of up to 500 deaths among the children. One young mother who walked for six days with her six barefoot children told of how her seven-month-old baby boy had died because she had no milk to give him. Another refugee said he had helped to bury four children who had died along the way.
At present there seems to be nothing that might persuade the refugees to change their minds and return home - least of all an offer from the Baghdad government of an amnesty for any Kurd who had taken part in the rebellion. Iraqi opposition spokesmen in Damascus, Syria, say the population could never trust promises made by Saddam's regime.
Contempt for the Baathist regime among the Kurds was heightened earlier this week after they heard comments made by Taha Muhieddin Marouf, a Kurdish member of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council who is despised by most of his own community. Mr. Marouf said it was the West and its allies in the Middle East that were forcing the Kurds to leave their homes. He went on to denounce Western countries for flying in humanitarian aid to the refugees in northern Iraq.
``Before subversive elements forced the Kurdish citizens to leave, they had been secure in their towns and villages,'' Marouf said.
Kurdish guerrilla leaders also have been urging their people not to leave, arguing that it was better to fight and die in Iraq rather than to go into exile. But their voices are going unheeded, and the stampede of terrified civilians continues.
The fleeing Kurds are clearly not going to have a change of heart either on the basis of proposals put forward by Britain for a United Nations-supervised ``safe haven'' in northern Iraq (see story, Page 6). Kurdish leaders in Iraq say the existence of such a zone would be preferable to the mass exodus of their people. But, they say, it still does not tackle the heart of the issue.
``The problem,'' said Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party, in Kurdistan earlier this week, ``is not one of refugees, but of a nation which has a right to live in its own area.''
Mr. Barzani, like Iraqi Shiite Muslim opposition leaders, is determined that the guerrilla struggle against the Baghdad regime continue. But he concedes that for the time being the main concern of the rebel fighters is the plight of their families.
The spotlight of international attention on the Kurdish refugees has nudged the problems of the Shiite community into the shadows. Iran says that since the start of the Gulf war Shiite refugees have been streaming across the border in the thousands. The numbers fleeing significantly increased followed reports earlier this week that 4,000 Iraqi Shiites had been put to death by the authorities in the Iraqi city of Najaf, Iranian officials say.
Iraqi opposition sources in Damascus say the international moves to help the refugees are welcome. But, in the words of an Iraqi Shiite living in exile, ``It is all too late - the damage has been done. We can never forgive the West for letting Saddam get away with it.''