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WAR WITH IRAQ / AIR AND GROUND

Iraqis Pull Back in Kurdish North

A day after U.S. troops landed in the area, forces battered by cruise missiles retreat without firing a shot. Kurds are jubilant.

March 28, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman and Paul Watson | Times Staff Writers

BANI MAQAN, Iraq — Saddam Hussein's northern front cracked a bit Thursday when Iraqi army troops, battered for days by U.S. cruise missiles, retreated from hilltop positions near the town of Chamchamal without firing a shot. As Kurdish fighters advanced, civilians looted Iraqi bunkers of grenades, canteens and gas masks.

Kurds were laughing and singing by nightfall as Iraqi units pulled back about 11 miles from Chamchamal west toward the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. A Kurdish military commander said his lightly armed forces -- some of them in taxis and on motorcycles -- filled most of the vacuum and now control an 18-mile-wide front line protected by U.S. warplanes.

The retreat came as more than 1,000 U.S. troops landed on airstrips and parachuted into Kurdish-held territory in northern Iraq. Since war began last week, there has been little action between the Iraqi army and U.S.-allied Kurdish forces, and Turkey's refusal to let U.S. troops use its territory as a base has prevented a significant American flank in the region.

But Thursday's pullback suggests that U.S. missiles are beginning to weaken the Iraqi regime's hold on the northeast. Still, U.S. forces expect to face heavy resistance in Kirkuk.

In addition to being home to Iraq's richest oil fields, Kirkuk is an important symbol for the Kurds. More than 100,000 of them were exiled from Kirkuk over the last decade, and most are eager to reclaim homes from Arabs who were brought in by Hussein to repopulate the city.

As Iraqi troops retreated Thursday, Kurdish military and security police brandishing Kalashnikov assault rifles seized control of a checkpoint here in Bani Maqan, two miles west of Chamchamal, to prevent Kurd civilians from storming Kirkuk in coming days. Kurdish political leaders have promised the U.S. they would not use the chaos of war as a pretext to retake the city, a move that could trigger ethnic reprisals.

One witness reported that the Iraqi troops loaded into 25 trucks, retreated at midafternoon and garrisoned at the village of Qura Hangir about 12 miles east of Kirkuk. As news of their departure spread over the fields and into Chamchamal, Kurdish fighters, wary of land mines and booby traps, eased up the potholed road to the Bani Maqan checkpoint, where five t guardhouses were abandoned. For Kurds, the hilltop bunkers above the checkpoint -- from which artillery rained on Chamchamal throughout the 1990s -- are the epitome of Hussein's repression. Commanders tried to warn their giddy fighters to proceed cautiously.

"We should not go there now," said Mam Rostam, a Kurdish commander, yelling to his men racing ahead into the night. "Be careful not to move your positions too far forward. We are waiting for the U.S. jets to come and bomb."

But as Rostam spoke, looters swarmed the 12 Iraqi bunkers and grabbed weapons, ammo boxes, heaters and other items. One man rolled a water barrel down the road with his feet while balancing a sack of flour on his shoulders. Another's shirt was bulging with a stolen cartridge belt and a gas mask.

"I got these weapons from the Iraqi troops," said Rakout Karim Sharif, holding up a rocket-propelled grenade and smiling. "I took my motorcycle so I could bring more things back," said Ahmed Jabar Salih, his shoes and his face muddy as he pushed the bike and carried a kerosene heater. "But it broke down. I'm so happy to see our enemy retreating."

More than a week of U.S. airstrikes have demoralized many soldiers in Hussein's army, according to Kurdish officials, who have a vast underground network in Kirkuk, Baghdad and other cities.

The Iraqi army "is very afraid," said Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which governs the eastern portion of northern Iraq. "They are afraid to live in their trenches, and now it is raining and they don't know where to go." He added there are many deserters and that Hussein is "trying to hide" his forces for battle while attempting to use Islamic militants in terror attacks against U.S. targets.

To discourage surrenders, the Iraqi army has imposed execution units behind troop formations, Kurdish fighters claim. "Ten soldiers tried to surrender Tuesday, but they were caught and taken to villages on the Iraqi side and shot," one fighter said.

Although the American presence in northern Iraq remains scant compared with the south, U.S. troops can increasingly be seen traveling in buses and trucks and arriving in C-130 transport planes.

The 1,000 soldiers from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade who parachuted early Thursday into Harir, about 60 miles northeast of Irbil, spent most of the day digging foxholes and mounting perimeter patrols. They are in friendly territory controlled by Kurdish fighters who hope to fight alongside U.S. forces against Hussein's army.

The buildup of U.S. troops in northern Iraq is spurring a search for buildings to base them in, and Kurdish military sources say U.S. officers have asked to take over at least five schools.

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