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In a Sign of Closer Ties, Kurds Enter U.S. Base

March 31, 2003|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

HARIR, Iraq — Riding atop their rarely seen armored vehicles, Kurdish guerrillas rolled onto a U.S. Army base Sunday in northern Iraq, a sign of increasing military cooperation between the guerrillas and American soldiers.

There were only four Kurdish armored personnel carriers in the convoy, each flying the yellow flag of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. But for Kurdish fighters more used to getting around in battered cars, the armored vehicles crawling past U.S. soldiers digging foxholes said the guerrillas had truly arrived.

U.S. and Kurdish officials refuse to discuss details of their military ties, except to say the guerrillas have agreed not to make any offensive moves outside U.S. military command.

The U.S. has not objected publicly to the guerrillas' territorial gains in recent days. They were easy victories, won without any fighting, because intense U.S. airstrikes are forcing Iraqi troops to pull back and concentrate their defenses around Kirkuk and Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city.

As the guerrillas moved closer Sunday to the edge of Altokopree, an Iraqi-held town on the highway south toward Kirkuk, Iraqi artillery opened up from a distant ridge and blasted the roadside and surrounding fields with several shells.

Two Kurdistan Democratic Party officials who had misjudged the fluid front line almost drove right up to the new Iraqi army positions but managed to make a frantic U-turn and get back to friendly territory as the shells exploded in the fields.

The contrails of high-flying U.S. B-52 bombers are a frequent sight now above northern Iraq, and on Sunday the planes hammered Iraqi forces along a ridge overlooking the Kurdish-held town of Kalak.

The bombing has become a spectator sport for some Kurds living and working near the front. Tailor Kamaran Aqray, 25, took the day off work with friends to sit on a hillside less than a mile from the B-52s' targets.

"We hope the war will end as soon as possible, for the benefit of the Iraqi people," Aqray said between airstrikes. "We don't like seeing the soldiers killed. We know they are forced to be there. They're not doing it by their own will."

Kurdish guerrillas were also working closely with U.S. troops as they set up a new base on higher ground above Harir -- at a former Iraqi army base in a fortress at Spilk.

The guerrillas hope to join U.S. troops in any ground attack on Iraqi forces in the north.

Turkey, which is trying to crush separatists among its own Kurdish minority, is equally determined to stop Iraq's Kurds from seizing control of Kirkuk's oil wealth.

But sharp warnings from Washington and Turkey's other Western allies have discouraged the Turkish army from invading Iraq, while Iraqi withdrawals let Kurdish guerrillas close in on Kirkuk.

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