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WAR WITH IRAQ / THE NORTHERN FRONT

Guerrillas in North Receive Amnesty Offer

Agreement with Muslim fighters in the region could ease threat to U.S. troops. Turkey backs off on idea of an incursion, at least for now.

March 27, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman and Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writers

GULA KHANA, Iraq — As U.S. soldiers parachuted into Kurdish-held territory in northern Iraq on Wednesday, leaders here offered an amnesty deal to Muslim guerrillas that could help eliminate a threat to American troops in the region.

And, after weeks of stern warnings from U.S. officials, Turkey announced that it would hold back on an incursion into northern Iraq -- at least for now -- thus avoiding the possibility of clashes with Kurds in the region.

The developments came as U.S. cruise missiles again struck positions in northern Iraq held by Muslim guerrillas and as about 200 American troops already on the ground worked with about 7,000 Kurdish fighters preparing for battle.

The parachute jump of about 1,000 U.S. soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Italy, occurred just before midnight local time and gave the Americans their first major presence in the north since the invasion began a week ago. The paratroopers jumped out of low-flying C-17 Globemaster transport planes at an airfield in Harir. Kurdish allies closed off roads around the airstrip during the operation.

Pentagon officials had hoped to have the Army's 4th Infantry Division attack Saddam Hussein's forces from the north, but that plan was foiled when Ankara rebuffed a U.S. request to allow up to 62,000 troops on Turkish soil.

As U.S. troops were flying to their drop-off point, Kurdish leaders offered amnesty to some members of a militant Islamic group called Ansar al Islam, whose 500 to 700 guerrillas have been fighting Kurdish militias for control of a string of villages not far from the Iranian border. Ansar, which Washington alleges is tied to Al Qaeda, has in recent months carried out suicide bombings and assassinated a high-ranking official in the autonomous Kurdish enclave.

The Bush administration considers Ansar a terrorist group and says it sheltered lieutenants of Osama bin Laden during the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan. The group also was blamed for a car bomb attack Saturday that killed five people, including an Australian journalist.

About 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles have struck Ansar's territory since the war began, including five Wednesday. The amnesty offer, according to one Kurdish official, is an attempt to lure away less-radical fighters who may be shaken by the U.S. airstrikes.

"We see a lot of disarray in Ansar," said Barham Salih, prime minister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan which governs the eastern half of the Kurdish enclave. "We sense some opportunity here."

As the amnesty proposal was sent by courier to Ansar, another militant Muslim group, Komaly Islami, agreed in a de facto surrender to move 1,000 fighters out of its stronghold of Khurmal. U.S. officials and their Kurdish allies have feared that Ansar and Komaly would merge, giving the extremists nearly 2,000 guerrillas. But U.S. airstrikes have crippled Komaly's operations and killed 50 of its members.

Komaly was stunned early Saturday when the first round of U.S. missiles battered its headquarters and military barracks. Unlike Ansar guerrillas, who had retreated to mountain hide-outs, Komaly fighters stayed in their positions.

More than 1,000 Komaly members and their families -- many of them wounded -- attempted to escape by crossing into Iran. Fearing reprisals from the U.S., the Iranian military, which in the past had let Komaly members pass, turned them back. Iranian officials were dispatched in recent days to mediate the surrender of Komaly.

On Wednesday, 15 scared and angry Komaly fighters waited in a drizzle for their leader, Ali Bapir, to finalize the surrender. In the distance a bus carrying about 40 U.S. troops sped down the road, past bunkers and villages of mud brick homes.

"I don't think the U.S. is against all humanity," said Peshewa Mahmud Muhammed, a Komaly fighter with a blue scarf covering half his face. "But I think the U.S. is against Muslims. It wants to frighten us."

Bapir said his group does not consider America an enemy: "I don't know if the U.S. hit us because we are Islamic. Is that enough of a reason? If there is a reason, the U.S. must tell us. If we have done anything wrong, the U.S. must tell us.... If there is no reason, the U.S. must apologize."

On the Turkish front, Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, that country's military chief of staff, offered to "coordinate" any action with U.S. forces mobilizing to strike at Saddam Hussein's forces from the north. But his carefully worded remarks also reflected the severe strains between longtime NATO allies over the U.S.-led invasion.

"I have difficulty understanding that those beyond the ocean, who say they are threatened, do not believe Turkey when it says it faces the same threat from right across its border," Ozkok said in a speech at military headquarters in Diyarbakir, Turkey. Events in northern Iraq "might spiral out of control," he added, prompting the United States and its allies "to ask us to take actions they now oppose."

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