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U.S. steps up bombing in northern Iraq

By Sebastian Alison

Click to enlarge photo

KALAK, Iraq (Reuters) - U.S. aircraft have bombed targets in Iraqi government-held territory in the north of the country, and U.S. and British special forces in the Kurdish-run zone have been seen scouting Iraqi frontline positions.

From Kalak, a village in the Kurdish-ruled zone of northern Iraq from where troops loyal to Saddam can clearly be sign on a ridge some two miles across the river Zab, this correspondent saw a series of B-52 bombers dropping their loads on Sunday.

The bombs landed in the direction of the government-held cities of Mosul, some 25 miles west of Kalak, and Kirkuk, the north's oil capital, to the south of Kalak.

From a position near a bridge carrying the main road from the Kurdish city of Arbil to Mosul across the river Zab, a Reuters team saw what appeared to be U.S. and British special forces troops looking at Iraqi bunkers on the nearby ridge.

The three men seemed to be taking accurate coordinates of the bunkers to provide information for bombers to hit them.

Aircraft have clearly tried to bomb the bunkers over the last few days -- they are surrounded by bomb craters, but have not yet been hit.

Wiping out the bunkers, which overlook the bridge from a height of around 100 metres (yards), might make the bridge safe and allow Kurdish and U.S. troops to advance over it to Mosul.

There are already at least 1,000 U.S. troops in the Kurdish zone. Most of them started arriving by parachute on Thursday at the Harir airstrip, some two hour's drive northwest of Kalak, and equipment has since arrived.

The Kurdish zone has been self-ruled since 1991, when it broke away from Baghdad at the end of the Gulf War, protected by a U.S. and British patrolled no-fly zone.

It has long been expected to act as a base for a northern front in the war against Saddam. But the refusal of Turkey to allow U.S. troops to use its soil has complicated the task of getting soldiers and equipment to the area.

As well as the activity at Kalak, this correspondent also saw a B-52 drop a heavy bomb which seemed to fall near Qushtapa, a frontline village on the main Arbil-Kirkuk road. Other bombs were also seen landing in the area.

Kurdish militiamen, or "Peshmerga", said on Saturday they had advanced up to 25 miles from Qushtapa along the road to Kirkuk.

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