U.S. Reinforces Northern Front
By Steve Vogel and Karl Vick
BASHUR AIRFIELD, Iraq, March 27 -- U.S. military aircraft carrying troops and tons of vehicles, ammunition and weapons flowed into this airfield tonight, reinforcing a northern front established by the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the war against President Saddam Hussein's government.
About 1,000 paratroops who jumped into the Kurdish-controlled area Wednesday night in one of the largest airborne operations since World War II spent much of the day linking up with their units. The jump left them scattered across long distances, and the mud left by heavy rain made moving a struggle. Some companies were not fully reconstituted until mid-afternoon.
Troops set up checkpoints along the roads around the airfield, 27 miles northeast of Irbil in the Kurdish autonomous zone, and linked up with several teams of U.S. Special Forces who had arrived earlier at the field, as well as with the militia from the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
As U.S. forces dramatically increased their presence in northern Iraq, Iraqi troops abandoned a front-line position just west of Chamchamal, about 70 miles south of here, after they were hit by seven airstrikes over 12 hours. They fled in two dozen trucks toward new positions about 12 miles down the road toward the strategic oil city of Kirkuk, witnesses said.
Aware of the political sensitivities that shape the emerging front, Kurdish commanders emphasized that their militias did not attack the Iraqi positions. The Kurds said they simply moved forward to fill the vacuum after the Iraqi troops abandoned their front line.
Witnesses said they saw soldiers from Iraq's regular army board two dozen trucks at 2:30 p.m. A half-hour later, residents of Chamchamal, nestled on the Kurdish side of the valley below, were racing toward Iraqi bunkers. They carried away machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and at least one pair of the massive binoculars that artillery spotters use.
"We got these weapons from the Iraqi troops, the sons of the dictator Saddam Hussein," said Rakout Karim Sharif, hoisting a rocket-propelled grenade. He was on the road from which Kurdish militiamen had just removed a truckload of antitank mines.
At nightfall, the Kurdish commander on the scene was shouting warnings to militiamen pressing to move closer to the Iraqis' new position at Qara Hangir, a heavily fortified village to the west on the four-lane highway toward Kirkuk.
"We have asked the American jets to bomb everything in Qara Hangir," the commander, Hamid Rostam Rahim, hollered across the median. "If we go there we may be bombed ourselves."
The scene illustrated the delicate but increasingly significant role Kurdish forces are playing in northern Iraq since the United States was forced to abandon plans for a more substantial front here. Originally, tens of thousands of troops from the Army's 4th Infantry Division were to mass in the north, using Turkey as a staging area. But Turkey refused to cooperate, granting permission only for U.S. planes to fly over its territory.
Up to several hundred U.S. troops have been present for months in the Kurdish region, but they had rarely been spotted. Now local sources speak of cooks preparing food for some 1,000 Special Operations forces housed at a military base outside Sulaymaniyah, near the Bakrajo airfield. They say U.S. military cargo planes have averaged three and four landings nightly this week.
Initially, the U.S. brigade's mission will be primarily political, aimed at discouraging Turkish forces from moving across the border into Kurdish-occupied territory. U.S. commanders are also hoping the airborne assault will encourage at least some Iraqi forces arrayed in the north to surrender, but many officers are skeptical that large numbers will do so. Commanders say the brigade may also be used to seize strategic objectives both inside and outside of the Kurdish-controlled zone.
Kurdish officials have declared themselves part of the coalition fighting to oust Hussein, but the role of up to 60,000 fighters from the two rival groups controlling the northern region is shrouded in secrecy. Hoshyar Zubari, an official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, cautioned against expecting a quick transfer of Kurdish militias from their defensive posts in the northern autonomous zone to offensive positions.
"There won't be a sudden march across the lines," he said. "It won't be like that."
There are three main cities on the road between Baghdad and the north: Kirkuk and Mosul, urban nodes of an oil-rich region, and Tikrit, Hussein's home town. The Kurds are eager to reclaim Kirkuk. Over the past three decades, Hussein's government has expelled tens of thousands of Kurds in an effort to alter the city's ethnic balance in favor of Iraqi Arabs.
Zalmay Khalilzad, special U.S. envoy to the Iraqi opposition, and Army Lt. Gen. Colby M. Broadwater III, commander of the Central Command's Task Force North, arrived on a C-130 early this morning. Crammed aboard the cargo plane was a contingent of Special Forces and Javelin missiles, all greeted by a delegation of delighted Kurdish officials and militiamen who had assembled on the unlighted tarmac.
"The only thing shining was the faces of the pesh merga," said one Kurdish official, referring to the militiamen.
Khalilzad met with Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the other main Kurdish group controlling the region, and other members of the Iraqi opposition on the shape of a postwar Iraq. Talabani claimed that Iraqi forces were abandoning the huge Khalid military complex south of Kirkuk after "hundreds were killed" by U.S. bombs. "They're very afraid, they're afraid to live in their tents," Talabani said. "Now it's raining."
He also said some Republican Guard units were moving south from Kirkuk to Tikrit, the base of Hussein's tribal support, located about halfway between Kirkuk and Baghdad. "They want to have a strong defense of the Tikrit area," he said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Special Operations forces continued to prepare an assault alongside about 8,000 Kurdish militiamen against an enclave of Islamic extremists outside Halabja, about 35 miles southeast of Sulaymaniyah. U.S. airstrikes and cruise missile attacks since Saturday have targeted the mountainside positions held by the Ansar al-Islam group, which has been linked to al Qaeda.
Today, several hundred fighters from an Islamic group whose territory abuts Ansar's -- and which provided logistical assistance to Ansar -- accepted a Kurdish offer of amnesty and were bused out of the target zone.
This morning, Ansar sent another car bomb from its territory to the nearby Kurdish checkpoint where an Australian cameraman and at least five Kurds were killed by a blast on Saturday. Kurdish sentries shot the driver of this morning's vehicle, a Land Rover that at first appeared to be stuffed with household goods. Beneath that camouflage, militiamen discovered 10 five-gallon jugs filled with white explosive powder, surrounded by five five-gallon jugs of gasoline.
Vick reported from Bani Maqan. Correspondent Daniel Williams contributed to this report from Harir.