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March 29, 2003
 
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(AP Photo)
Iraq Pulls Back on Northern Front
U.S. Strikes Militant Camps in Northern Iraq As Saddam's Army Pulls Back on Road to Oil Center

The Associated Press


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QUSHTAPA, Iraq March 29

U.S. forces and Kurdish fighters are striking at Islamic militant camps and advancing along a new northern front against Saddam Hussein's army after it pulled back Saturday along the main road to the oil center of Kirkuk.

Iraqi soldiers fell back at least 12 miles from the Qushtapa checkpoint to apparently regroup near Perdeh also known as Altun Kupri about 30 miles from Kirkuk.

The town has an important bridge over the Little Zab River. Bypassing the bridge would require coalition forces to make difficult and potentially dangerous detours through rolling hills where Iraqis could stage guerrilla-style ambushes.

Kurdish commanders believe the retreat is part of attempts to solidify Iraqi defenses around Kirkuk. Earlier this week, Iraqi troops made a similar pullback east of Kirkuk.

"We think they are trying to make a ring around Kirkuk," said Farhad Yunus Ahmad, a leader of a front line unit of the Kurdish militiamen known as peshmergas literally "those who face death."

But there are no orders yet to open a northern offensive. The Pentagon has some 1,200 paratroops and some special forces at its disposal in the Western-protected Kurdish autonomous region. Kurdish leaders, meanwhile, have pledged not to stage any independent attacks for the time being.

Kurdish scouts advanced slowly along an emptied stretch of the Irbil-Kirkuk road, which appeared to be mined in places. Iraqi soldiers left behind cinder block bunkers, coils of barbed wire and sandbags. Kurds planted the yellow flag of the Kurdistan Democratic Party one of the two main Kurdish factions atop a small hill overlooking an abandoned village surround by green pastures dotted with spring wildflowers.

Tracks in the mud suggested the Iraqis had some tanks in the area recently.

In a foxhole, an Iraqi soldier left an empty pack of Al-Rashid cigarettes with some pencil doodles on the inside cover.

In the eastern part of the Kurdish zone, militia backed by U.S. forces took control Friday of territories held by the al-Qaida-linked, radical Islamic group Ansar al-Islam, a group accused by the United States of maintaining ties to Saddam.

In fighting with Ansar al-Islam, at least two members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, were killed, and 22 others injured, said Kosrat Rasool Ali, an official with the PUK, the other main Kurdish faction. About 40 Ansar fighters were killed and at least one was captured, The Washington Post reported, citing medical officials.

U.S. forces have been bombing Iraqi and Ansar-al Islam targets in northern Iraq and Mosul and Kirkuk for several days. More aircraft could be heard flying over Halabja along the Iranian border late Friday.

Also Friday, the two main Kurdish groups joined with the opposition Iraqi National Congress in urging people all over Iraq to engage in "the liberation of the cities and villages from dictatorship."

More than 1,200 U.S. paratroopers swooped into northern Iraq this week, linking up with Kurdish fighters and U.S. special operations troops to seize the strategic Bakrajo air base, about 80 miles north of the key oil fields of Kirkuk and Mosul. U.S. commanders say heavy armor and other material could soon start arriving.

Among the areas abandoned by Saddam's forces was the garrison town of Qala Hanjir, about 12 miles south of the Kurdish zone. Iraq had used the town to defend Kirkuk. Kurdish militia rooting through the Baath Party headquarters there Friday found gas masks and vials of atropine, a nerve gas antidote.

Kurdish officials said Iraqi forces in Kirkuk also shelled the nearby Kurdish-held city of Chamchamal. At least one person was injured, residents said.


photo credit and caption:
Iraqi Kurdish militia fighters are seen in the Qushtapa area, 50 kms (30 miles) south of the Kurdish-controlled town of Irbil, during a move towards the oil center of Kirkuk, northern Iraq, Saturday March, 29, 2003. Striking at Islamic militant camps, U.S. forces and Kurdish fighters were shaping their new northern front against Saddam Hussein's army Saturday, which apparently pulled back along the main road to Kirkuk. (AP PHOTO/Hasan Sarbakhshian)

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

 
 
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