In the North, Small Force, Big Tasks

By Steve Vogel and Vernon Loeb

IRBIL, Iraq, March 31 -- Commanders of the 173rd Airborne Brigade scouted potential base locations in this key Kurdish city today, and said moving the 2,000-man unit here from Bashur airfield would position the force to begin hit-and-run operations in northern Iraq.

While far too small to stage a major advance on Iraqi armored and mechanized units guarding the key cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, the brigade is trained to operate with Special Forces and air power, and is capable of attacking Iraqi outposts and battalion-sized formations, according to commanders here and defense officials in Washington.

"It is a quick-reaction force in its training, which is an offensive orientation," one U.S. general said. "The uncertainty of what they can do should give [the Iraqis] concern."

A light infantry brigade with some Humvees, artillery and trucks is a far cry from the 60,000 U.S. ground forces and hundreds of tanks that military planners had envisioned rumbling across the Turkish border to open a northern front. But with that plan rendered impossible because of opposition by the Turkish government, U.S. officials said the presence of the 173rd should keep Iraqi forces in the north and prevent them from falling back for the defense of Baghdad.

Briefing reporters in Washington, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke began her remarks today by saying that U.S. forces "are approaching Baghdad from the North, the South and the West."

The airborne troops parachuted into the Bashur airfield last week, much to the astonishment of Kurdish militiamen, who had guarded the runway for months so that U.S. cargo planes could fly troops directly into the region. The parachute operation was designed as both a demonstration of a tactic the United States could use in other parts of the country and to announce, in dramatic fashion, that regular U.S. forces were finally on the ground in the north.

Autonomous Kurdish authorities and militias have controlled northern Iraq since 1991, and they have eagerly awaited U.S. forces. For the Kurds, the war has become a frustrating waiting game ever since the Turkish parliament earlier this month refused to allow U.S. forces to launch a massive assault from their country.

Still, Kurdish officials insist that the northern front will become a reality, sooner or later.

"It's not like someone's going to cut a ribbon and suddenly there's a northern front," said Hoshyar Zubari, an official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Zubari suggested that no decision has been made on the scope and timing of opening a new front. "We get mixed signals," he said. "Our understanding is that it will open very soon."

He hinted that the goal is harassment, for the moment at least. "Things happen behind the line, along the line. A lot of it is invisible to you," he said.

If the 173rd Airborne Brigade advances here from Bashur airfield, it would be near Iraqi forces just on the other side of the line dividing the autonomous Kurdish zone from the rest of Iraq.

The presence of the U.S. troops is not only for the purpose of fighting Iraqi units. As explained over the weekend by Gen. Tommy R. Franks, chief commander of the war in Iraq, "These forces, along with large numbers of special operations troops, have [the purpose of] preventing the rekindling of historic feuding which we've seen in years past between the Turks and the Kurds."

Col. William Mayville, who commands the 173rd and led the scouting mission here today, said that basing U.S. forces in Irbil would greatly improve stability in northern Iraq, where tensions between Kurds and Turks have run high for years.

Before the Turkish parliament rejected the staging of U.S. forces from Turkish soil, the Bush administration had discussed a plan to allow the Turkish military to establish a security zone along the border inside Iraq to prevent thousands of Kurdish refugees from fleeing into southern Turkey, as they did during the 1991 Gulf War.

But since Turkey nixed the northern front, the Bush administration has said it is opposed to any Turkish move into northern Iraq. In the absence of a heavy U.S. force moving south from Turkey, the 173rd thus becomes the buffer between the Kurdish militias and Turkish forces.

Prior to the brigade's arrival, teams from the Kurdistan Democratic Party had worked with small teams of U.S. Special Forces to direct airstrikes on Iraqi positions. But given the historic tensions between the Turks and the Kurds, Mayville discounted the possibility that his troops or other U.S. conventional forces would fight alongside Kurds against Iraq.

"It would really provoke the Turks," he said.

A limited Iraqi retreat has already begun from outposts along the border of the Kurdish-controlled zone. But with as many as 10 Iraqi divisions based in the north, the presence of U.S. troops could force Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to keep much of that force in the area.

"The 173rd is part of a force that will contribute to securing the northern region, threaten the regime and ensure the Iraqi commanders do not disregard that threat," one U.S. general said. "In other words, [the Iraqis] will be caught in the dilemma as to whether or not they can afford to draw off forces to defend Baghdad, or keep forces in place to defend against an attack from the north."

Zubari and other Kurdish officials describe the Iraqi withdrawals as tactical moves designed to better defend Kirkuk and Mosul. The Iraqis still control Altun Kupri, a town at a key intersection of two roads, both of which lead to Kirkuk, they say. One road follows the ridge along its north side; the other winds through a gap, then turns south to the city behind the high ground.

The Iraqis, by remaining atop the ridge, also protect the town of Dibis on the other side. Dibis stands at the north end of Kirkuk's extensive oil fields. In short, the Iraqis abandoned vacant territory, but showed no signs of giving up the oil fields or either Kirkuk or Mosul.

While heavy airstrikes have hit Iraqi positions outside Irbil in recent nights and an attack by an AC130 gunship last night caused heavy casualties, the Iraqis continue to reinforce the positions with fresh forces, U.S. officers said.

Give this resiliency, some officers remain skeptical of predictions that the Iraqi forces will stage a mass surrender in the north. Rather than abandoning their positions, some Iraqi units have been reinforcing them. At the same time there are no indications the Iraqi forces are preparing for an offensive against Kurdish or American positions, the officers said.

Loeb reported from Washington. Correspondent Daniel Williams contributed to this report from northern Iraq.