U.S. Moves To Increase Firepower In North

By Steve Vogel and Karl Vick

SHAQLAWA, Iraq, March 29 -- U.S. forces in northern Iraq today rushed to build combat power for operations that could include sending troops north, to keep a large Turkish force from entering Kurdish-controlled Iraq, or south and west toward Iraqi forces.

Reconnaissance teams today scouted possible routes for U.S. forces, while the arrival of a 105mm artillery battery and other weaponry at the Bashur airfield near this town about 30 miles northeast of Irbil has significantly increased the 173rd Airborne Brigade's firepower.

Several Iraqi divisions are positioned in northern Iraq outside Kurdish-controlled territory, and some officers here doubt intelligence expectations that they will capitulate. Lt. Col. Dom Caraccilo, commander of the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry, predicted contact with the U.S. troops will be needed to force a surrender. "They don't have anyone to capitulate to," he said. "They don't want to just give up."

Iraqi soldiers retreated at least 12 miles from a northern front-line position late Friday to apparently regroup near Altun Kupri about 27 miles north of Kirkuk, the Associated Press reported. That follows a similar pullback from a position east of Kirkuk on Thursday.

Kurdish militia advanced cautiously into the territory abandoned by Iraqi forces, moving closer to Kirkuk, whose oil fields would be a main goal of a northern push. The Kurds are especially eager to take Kirkuk because thousands of Kurds were driven out of the city over the years by President Saddam Hussein's government.

More Air Force C-17s carrying troops and equipment arrived tonight, continuing the rapid expansion of the U.S. presence at the Bashur airfield.

The Army's 10th Mountain Division has a small number of troops in northern Iraq and plans to send more than a thousand additional ones soon, a senior defense official said today.

In addition to a battalion of infantry, the division, which is based at Fort Drum in upstate New York, is expected to send military police and artillery units to reinforce the U.S. paratroopers who recently moved into northern Iraq.

The deployment of the troops wasn't disclosed by the Pentagon. A spokesman didn't return a call seeking comment on the move.

The 10th Mountain deployed to Central Asia and Afghanistan, and some of the troops going to Iraq returned from Afghanistan last year. The division is uniquely suited for operations in northern and central Iraq because its specialties are cold-weather warfare and urban warfare. Senior officials have indicated that if the battle for Baghdad proves unexpectedly difficult, the rest of the 10,000-troop division might be deployed there.

The airfield occupied by the 173rd Airborne Brigade since Wednesday night's airdrop of 1,000 paratroops sits in a horseshoe-shaped bowl of mountains, with the key cities of Irbil and Kirkuk lying beyond the snow-capped peaks. "The fight is over the mountains, and we're going to get ready for it," said Col. William Mayville, the brigade commander.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controls this part of the autonomous zone, is providing major logistical support to the U.S. force. Kurdish soldiers would be willing to fight alongside U.S. forces, said Wadji Barzani, brother of KDP head Massoud Barzani. "This is the first Army to come here to help the Kurds, not kill the Kurds," Barzani said in an interview today during a visit to the Bashur airfield. Kurdish militiamen stroll about the base with AK-47s slung across their backs.

Turkey views the possibility of the Kurds expanding their territory with alarm, fearing they could affirm their autonomy within Iraq and encourage ethnic Kurds in Turkey to push for independence.

To keep Turkey from sending large numbers of forces into the Kurdish autonomous zone, U.S. commanders say they might move some of the force north.

U.S. officials are concerned that a Turkish incursion would lead to warfare with Kurdish militias that operate here. "I'm worried about the Turks," Mayville said. "They're our allies and friends, but we need to encourage them to stay up north and to say, 'Hey, we'll take care of it. We understand your concerns.' "

U.S. Special Forces troops continued attacks on Islamic extremists in a remote corner of northern Iraq today, mopping up apparently sizable pockets of Ansar al-Islam who retreated before a joint U.S.-Kurdish assault on Friday.

Armored Humvees mounted with .50-caliber machine guns lurched into action in at least three locations in the Halabja Valley 35 miles southeast of here, according to journalists who witnessed the fighting. The heavy machine-gun assault followed a massive ground advance a day earlier by at least 6,000 Kurdish militiamen allied with the United States.

That assault quickly took all of the villages that had been controlled by Ansar, a band of about 700 extremist fighters that the Bush administration says has ties to the al Qaeda terror network. Kurdish officials claimed that 120 Ansar fighters died in Friday's fighting and that 56 others perished in the six days of U.S. bombing runs and missile strikes that preceded the ground advance. The Kurds reported 20 dead.

Today, an undetermined number of surviving Ansar fighters crossed the nearby border into Iran, where they were detained, a Kurdish official said. Talks were underway among Kurdish officials, U.S. forces and a representative of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to return the fighters to Iraq.

"That's what's being negotiated now," the official said.

Ansar's mostly native Kurdish force included 100 to 150 Arabs, most of whom arrived in this autonomous corner of Iraq from Afghanistan last year by way of Iran.

But Iran turned away Ansar's wounded and families after a U.S. assault with 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles on March 22. Kurdish officials said the reversal reflected Iranian nervousness over the U.S. show of force. Iran, which has long opposed Hussein, has officially maintained a position of "active neutrality" in the U.S.-led invasion aimed at deposing him.

Vick reported from Sulaymaniyah, Iraq. Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks in Washington contributed to this report.

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