Troops Probe Countryside In Kurd Zone

By Steve Vogel

IRBIL, Iraq, April 4 -- Squads of gun trucks in wedge formations motored for miles through open, rolling fields just inside the Kurdish-controlled zone of northern Iraq today, looking for any sign of Iraqi forces or abandoned positions. Bypassing towns, U.S. troops, armed with anti-tank weapons and machine guns, encountered little besides startled goats and curious villagers.

" It's not often you get paid to go four-wheeling with live ammo," said Staff Sgt. Jeremy Baum, a squad leader with A Company of the 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry, as his unit's Humvee bounced and rolled through undulating fields.

" It's a reconnaissance in force to develop information about enemy strength in this area," said Lt. Col. Harry Tunnell, commander of the U.S. force here.

Two rifle companies of paratroops in gun trucks from the 173rd Airborne Brigade moved out this morning from a forward operating base the brigade had established outside Irbil.

Task Force Red Devil, a battalion-sized force, occupied a position near Irbil on Wednesday night. The remainder of the 173rd remains positioned at the Bashur airfield 40 miles northeast of Irbil, where the brigade landed last week.

Today's probing was toward the west, in the direction of a dominant ridge occupied by an Iraqi army company. Kurdistan Democratic Party forces, supported by U.S. Special Forces troops and air power, are believed to have pushed the Iraqis off the ridge in recent days.

Further to the west, across the Zab River and outside of the Kurdish zone, elements of an Iraqi mechanized battalion came across a U.S. Special Forces team Thursday night, sparking a fierce fight. Two AC-130 Spectre gunships attacked the Iraqi force, and the Special Forces team was extracted.

Task Force Red Devil's armed reconnaissance is intended to develop a battlefield picture for U.S. commanders, determining the location and fighting strength of Iraqi forces and studying the terrain in advance of a possible U.S. ground attack. Officers also scouted for potential battle positions in case an Iraqi army corps located between Irbil and Mosul launches an attack on the U.S. position.

" If an enemy engages us, we're going to engage them back," said 1st Lt. John Spencer, 26, of Indiana.

A prime worry for U.S. commanders is to prevent soldiers from firing on KDP forces operating in the area.

" They're both Iraqis, they're both carrying weapons, they're both sometimes wearing civilian clothing," said Spencer. "It's a real touchy situation."

But unit leaders warned soldiers to be wary of assuming any forces they encountered would be friendly.

" We should worry about nobody except us and our soldiers -- that's it," Sgt. 1st Class William Stanton, a platoon sergeant, told A Company soldiers gathered in front of Humvees before today's mission.

Stanton warned soldiers to be wary of surrendering Iraqis. "See what happened to the Marines?," he said. "Always keep that in the back of your mind."