U.S. Ground Forces Hit Iraqi Positions in North

By Steve Vogel

WEST OF IRBIL, Iraq, April 6 -- With flashes of fire and thunderous concussions, Army troops staged an artillery strike on Iraqi forces tonight, the first ground attack by conventional U.S. forces in northern Iraq.

When the artillery hit, Iraqi soldiers began running in confusion, and some trenches in the area were destroyed, a forward observer reported, according to U.S. officers.

The Iraqi positions, along a ridge about 10 miles west of the Zab River, had been hit hard by airstrikes directed by U.S. Special Forces. But troops in the target area were protected by a network of bunkers and tunnels and generally could hear air attacks coming before they hit, a Special Forces soldier said. U.S. commanders were hoping to catch Iraqi troops in the open with the artillery, which came without warning.

"More than anything else, it surprises them," said Capt. Brian Hooper, intelligence officer for the 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry.

A combined force of infantry and artillery soldiers launched the raid from their base outside Irbil, moving west to the edge of the Kurdish autonomous zone. Working at night in a light, eerie fog, soldiers hurriedly set up two 105mm howitzers in a field near the Great Zab River.

"Send it down," called the battery commander, Capt. Chris Lambesis, and a shell exploded from the muzzle. A Special Forces forward observer hiding near the target area radioed in corrections, and more shells began flying.

More than 50 rounds of rocket-assisted projectiles flew across the river, aimed at targets 10 miles away, including Iraqi infantry and artillery. In less than an hour, the raiding party packed up and withdrew.

The fighting until now has been conducted by Kurdish forces supported by teams of U.S. Special Forces and coalition air power.

"It represents the combat introduction of force into northern Iraq," Lt. Col. Harry Tunnell, commander of Task Force Red Devil, told the raiding force of more than 100 soldiers when they gathered in a field this afternoon. "We came here to do a job, and we're about ready to do it."

The 173rd Airborne Brigade jumped about 1,000 paratroops into Kurdish territory in northern Iraq on March 26. After building up strength via airlifts and moving a battalion to the airfield near Irbil, the U.S. forces began launching increasingly aggressive reconnaissance missions west toward Iraqi positions.

"It demonstrates that there are conventional forces here to fight," Tunnell said in an interview. "As soon as they take artillery fire, they know something's different -- things have changed."

"We're finding where they are and raiding it," said Col. William Mayville, commander of the 173rd Airborne.