When the Desert Storm international coalition led by the United States attacked Iraq from the air and drove its forces from Kuwait in January and February 1991, it weakened Saddam Hussein’s military power. Restive Kurds in northern Iraq, whom the Iraqi dictator had brutally suppressed in 1988, rose in rebellion in early March. When forces loyal to Saddam Hussein quashed the revolt at the end of the month, threatening to repeat the massacres of a few years earlier, hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled their homes. In early April, a million or more crossed the border into western Iran. As many as 450,000 moved into southeastern Turkey. About 400,000 gathered on cold mountain slopes at the Turkish border. The refugees desperately needed food, clean water, clothing, blankets, medical supplies, and shelter, as more than 1,000 died each day from exposure, hunger, or disease.
In response to the emergency, the UN Security Council authorized an international relief effort for the Kurdish refugees. On April 5, the United States and its allies organized an operation called Provide Comfort, which began with airdrops of relief supplies to the Kurds. The Provide Comfort Combined Task Force, including more than 11,000 Americans and thousands of troops from the United Kingdom, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and Belgium, set up 43 tent camps for the refugees in an 8,000-square-kilometer security zone in northern Iraq. The camps encouraged the Kurds to leave the cold mountain slopes as a first step to returning home. To protect the Kurds from Iraqi military attacks, the task force enforced a no-fly zone, using U.S. and allied fighters and attack aircraft to patrol the region.
U.S. cargo aircraft supported Provide Comfort. A fleet of more than 20 C–130s, most from the 37th and 61st Tactical Airlift Squadrons and the 302d Tactical Airlift Wing, airdropped about 600 pallets of relief supplies each day to the Kurds in eastern Turkey and northern Iraq during April. The cargo included tents, blankets, food, clothing, and baby care products. Most of the four-engine transports took off from Incirlik AB in Turkey and staged at airfields at Diyarbakir, Silopi, Batman, and Adana. Some C–130s landed and unloaded at Sirsensk in the security zone after a few airdropped pallets accidentally struck refugees. As the Kurds gradually moved down from the mountains to the tent cities and sealifted cargo began arriving in Turkey, C–130 airdrops declined, and more deliveries were made by Army, Navy, and Marine helicopters or trucks.
Other Air Force cargo aircraft, C–5 Galaxies and C–141 Starlifters, moved thousands of tons of relief supplies from Dover AFB, Delaware, and Charleston AFB, South Carolina, through Rhein-Main AB in Germany to Incirlik, Adana, and Diyarbakir. The larger four-jet transports, from military airlift wings such as the 60th, 349th, 436th, and 437th, could not land at the small airstrips in the security zone. For this reason, C–130s, helicopters, and trucks transshipped relief supplies to the Kurds along the border of Turkey and Iraq.
During the first 20 days of Provide Comfort, C–5s and C–141s flew 75 missions from the United States and Europe to Turkey. When Iraqi ground forces approached the camp areas, C–5s transported allied troops from Italy to eastern Turkey. The coalition forces moved overland to Zakhu, just across the border in northern Iraq, to protect the refugees and encourage them to return to their homes.
A 437th Military Airlift Wing C–141, under the command of Lt. Col. Pryor B. Timmons, Jr., delivered Provide Comfort medical supplies and blankets to Tehran for Kurdish refugees who had fled to Iran. This was the first U.S. aircraft to land in that country since the hostage crisis of 1980.
The establishment of a security zone in northern Iraq, with allied air cover and a military presence on the ground, persuaded most Kurdish refugees to leave the crowded camps and return home. By the end of May 1991, only about 41,000 of the hundreds of thousands of refugees originally sheltered in the tent cities remained. Saddam Hussein met with Kurdish leaders in Baghdad, promising them security and some autonomy. On June 7, the UN assumed responsibility for the remaining Kurdish refugees. During the next week, the Provide Comfort Combined Task Force withdrew its ground troops from northern Iraq, ending the first phase of Provide Comfort.
The primary focus of the operation now shifted from delivery of humanitarian relief to deterring Iraqi military forces from attacking Kurds in their home towns. This was accomplished with allied air patrols over northern Iraq and ground forces in eastern Turkey ready to enter Iraq again, if necessary, to protect the Kurds. Provide Comfort airlift missions continued into 1993, but their purpose was no longer primarily to deliver food, clothing, medical supplies, and other humanitarian relief cargo to Kurdish refugees. Sealift played an increasingly important role in supplying Provide Comfort forces and their Kurdish beneficiaries.
The first phase of Provide Comfort involved U.S. commercial aircraft and planes from at least six other nations and embraced missions not strictly humanitarian. Statistics on the contributions of the Air Force to the humanitarian airlift portion of Provide Comfort are, therefore, difficult to determine. It is clear, however, that U.S. aircraft delivered at least 7,000 tons of relief supplies during the first phase of Provide Comfort, which lasted from April 5 through July 15, 1991.
The difficulties encountered during Provide Comfort taught the U.S. military some important lessons. Military planners needed to review airdrop policies in light of the accidental casualties. They needed to select more carefully which cargo to transport. The Kurds refused western clothes and unfamiliar food, such as corn and potatoes. Dehydrated baby food was a poor choice because it had to be mixed with clean water, which was scarce. Provide Comfort also demonstrated the need for better communication between peoples speaking different languages. Despite these problems, the first phase of Provide Comfort achieved many important goals. It sustained the lives of thousands of people, restrained the brutality of Saddam Hussein, and eased population pressure on southeastern Turkey. Humanitarian airlift proved again a most useful instrument of national policy.