SOZ BLAKH, Iraq April 5 —
American forces supporting Kurdish fighters against President
Saddam Hussein's army took up positions in the no-man's land south
of the Kurdish autonomous region and in the north, where U.S.
warplanes hit Iraqi positions near the commercial center of
The combination of American air strikes and Kurdish ground
attacks in the north has driven Iraqi government forces back from
the Kurdish frontiers toward the two main northern districts in
Baghdad hands: Mosul and the important oil center around Kirkuk. The
Kurds are now less than 20 miles from each city.
Overnight Saturday to Sunday, about 60 fighters, fighter-bombers
and support aircraft from the USS Theodore flew strike missions over
northern Iraq. Officers aboard the carrier, located in the eastern
Mediterranean, said targets included Iraqi troop concentrations,
artillery, tanks and armored vehicles.
Iraq Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, speaking to
Al-Jazeera Arabic television as U.S. forces moved into Baghdad on
Saturday, was dismissive of the Kurdish gains.
In the north, he said, moving a position here and there "does not
mean a thing."
"We have different calculations for the northern region. It does
not worry us at all," he said.
In the southeast, where the autonomous region runs along the
Iranian border and reaches down to within 100 miles of Baghdad,
Kurdish fighters have been massing along the frontier within
striking distance of the oil city of Khanaqin.
U.S. Special Forces have joined them, apparently to lend the kind
of support they have in the north calling in air strikes on Iraqi
positions. They could be seen Friday and Saturday in the no-man's
land between the sides, an area about 35 miles from Khanaqin.
Kurdish troop strength along the southern frontline has risen
from less than 400 several weeks ago to between 1,500 and 1,800 now.
Mola Bakhtiyar, a Kurdish political and military leader, said it
would rise quickly to about 3,000.
The Kurds, long oppressed by Saddam's regime, established an
autonomous region in the north in 1991 under the protection of U.S.
and British air patrols.
In the northwest near Mosul, U.S. aircraft carried out a
sustained attack Saturday on Iraqi positions outside the village of
Khazer, where Kurds seized an important bridge on Friday. The front
line appeared to have moved several kilometers west into formerly
A large convoy of soldiers from the U.S. 173rd Airborne Division
took up positions less than 10 miles to the east of Khazer, and
about three miles east of Kalak, where the Iraqis had abandoned a
large position on Thursday.
The 25 vehicles carried some 250 soldiers about a fifth of the
paratroopers dropped in to the Kurdish north on March 26. One group
of 14 vehicles took up position on a ridge outside of Kalak in
pastures and freshly plowed fields.
At the town of Fida, about 25 miles north of Mosul, eight to 10
Special Forces troops and about 150 Kurdish fighters came under
intermittent artillery fire and heavy machine gun fire during a
coalition reconnaissance mission.
The fire came from a hill overlooking an Iraqi army barracks,
which the U.S. soldiers believed to house several hundred government
troops, and apparently from an estimated 100 Iraqi troops within the
town of Fida. The allied forces destroyed two T-55 Iraqi tanks at
the scene of the fighting, which continued Saturday night.
Regaining control of Kirkuk, in particular, is a long-held dream
of the Kurds. The Baghdad government has for years moved Kurds and
other minorities, such as ethnic Turks and Assyrians, out of the
oil-rich areas in order to consolidate control and give the regions
an Arab character.
The United States, which has protected the Kurdish zone with air
patrols since its foundation, has allowed Kurdish militiamen to
advance unchallenged yet keeps intact a U.S. pledge to Turkey to
block any independent Kurdish offensive.
Turkey fears that if the Kurds are allowed to take over the
northern oil cities they might establish an independent state and
inspire Turkey's own, restive, Kurdish minority.
The Kurds insist that Turkey must not be allowed to bring its own
troops into Iraq, and the Turks have conceded. The United States has
brought in more than 1,000 paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne
Division, apparently as an alternative to the much larger force it
had hoped to bring in from Turkey to use for a northern front until
Special forces, who have been present in small numbers in the
north for several weeks, took part in a joint campaign with Kurdish
fighters last week to destroy a base of the allegedly
al-Qaida-linked Ansar al-Islam.
|Kurdish fighters show the place
where a shell allegedly fired from Turkish side exploded six
days ago near the Metifa village in north of the
Kurdish-controlled town of Zakho in northern Iraq, Friday
April 4, 2003. Washington strongly opposes any Turkish moves
into northern Iraq. Turkey fears the U.S.-led war could lead
Iraq to fragment, with northern Kurds declaring independence.
(AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)|
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