KANILAN, Iraq—A U.S. airborne brigade in northern Iraq is preparing to move south toward a ridge of hills northeast of Baghdad, backed by U.S. air power, special operations forces and tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurdish guerrillas, according to U.S. and opposition officials.
Some of the 173rd Airborne Brigade's combat forces left their base in the north Wednesday on armed patrols to probe for Iraqi forces in the direction of the oil-rich northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. Another battalion was expected to do the same soon.
But the officials said the withdrawal of Iraqi Republican Guard divisions that had been guarding Mosul and Kirkuk appeared to have opened the way for a U.S.-led force to move toward Baghdad, rather than concentrate on securing Kirkuk, Mosul and the oil fields as originally planned.
"We soon will be closing in on Baghdad from all directions, including the north," a senior administration official in Washington said.
On Tuesday, 400 Kurdish guerrillas, who have placed themselves under U.S. command, started a battle with Iraqi soldiers when they came under sniper attack. Four hours later, with dawn coming, the first battle of the war in northern Iraq was over, with dozens of Iraqis dead and several hundred retreating toward Mosul. The lightly armed guerrillas, unassisted by U.S. forces, swarmed an Iraqi military post nine miles northeast of Mosul.
The Kurdish guerrillas captured 33 prisoners, including an Iraqi colonel. One Kurdish fighter was killed.
Mosul came under a ferocious U.S. air attack late Wednesday afternoon, and the thumps of B-52 strikes could be heard 35 miles away.
The victorious guerrillas—who are known as peshmerga, or those who face death—belong to the Kurdish Democratic Party. KDP leader Massoud Barzani has placed his men—regular soldiers and guerrillas—under the control of U.S. Central Command and special forces teams now operating in the north.
Barzani has promised U.S. officials that his men would not attack Iraqi positions without permission from the U.S. military. The Bush administration has won guarantees from the Kurds not to advance unilaterally on Kirkuk and Mosul for fear of angering neighboring Turkey.
The Turks fear that an independent Kurdish state, supported by oil revenues from Kirkuk's vast reserves, could rekindle demands for more autonomy by Turkey's 12 million ethnic Kurds. Further aggressive military action by the Iraqi Kurds might well cause the Turks to send troops into northern Iraq, a move they've threatened in the recent past.
But the commander of the Kurdish guerrillas who defeated Iraqi forces Tuesday said he could not wait for permission.
"They shot at us, and we defended ourselves," Sarbaz Bapiri said. "We drove the Iraqis back, then later some American helicopters came."
But retired Lt. Gen. Hasan Kundacki, who led forces in southeastern Turkey in fighting with separatist Kurds, said the fight underscores Turkey's fears.
It "means they will not do what they are told by the U.S., which shows that we were realistic in our concerns and justified," said Kundacki, who appears on Turkish television to discuss war strategies.
But U.S. officials were pushing ahead to strengthen links with the Kurds.
Barzani and three other Iraqi opposition leaders were scheduled to meet Thursday with an American special forces officer who is a liaison between U.S. Central Command and the opposition groups in northern Iraq.
The others invited to the meeting were Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress; Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan; and Abdul Aziz Hakim, the brother of Ayatollah Mohamad Baqir Al Hakim, the leader of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Just last week, administration officials were warning the council's military wing, the Badr Corps, to stay out of the fight.
Kurdish peshmergas in the north are said to number 70,000.
"We have put all of our forces at Tommy Franks' command, basically," said Hoshyar Zebari, Barzani's spokesman. "If there will be a northern front, definitely they cannot do it without us."
The new plan to send the peshmerga out of Kurd-controlled territory and south to the Hamrin Mountains, about 80 miles north of Baghdad, has two benefits, the U.S. and opposition officials said. It puts pressure on Baghdad and reduces the danger that the Kurds and Turks will get embroiled in a squabble over Kirkuk, which the Kurds claim but which also has a large Turkoman population with ties to Turkey.
The plan appeared to be going into effect Wednesday as elements of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, based at Bashur air base in Kurdish territory, moved southwest of their base to an airfield in the Kurdish-controlled city of Irbil, setting the stage for probing operations against Iraqi forces on the border with the Kurdish region. They called it "Operation Bayonet Deterrence."
"There's going to be some killing going on," said Lt. Col. Dominic Caraccilo, who commands one of the unit's two combat units, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Brigade. "They are going to do reconnaissance in force down there, which means they are going to conduct armed patrols to get a feel of the disposition of enemy forces."
Others remained to guard the airfield, where equipment and supplies have been arriving daily in the week since the 173rd's lead elements were inserted by parachute drop.
Sometime this week, two companies of tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles from Germany were expected to arrive, significantly augmenting the brigade's combat power.
Kurdistan, the region where the base is located, is home to 4 million Kurds. It is an autonomous northern enclave that has been beyond Baghdad's control for more than a decade.
The 500 Iraqi troopers who were overrun Tuesday morning had been deployed along the border between Kurdistan and the part of Iraq controlled by Saddam Hussein. The border has frayed badly in recent days, as Iraqi troops have withdrawn toward Kirkuk and Mosul.
Near the village of Kanilan, guerrilla fighters picked over the items left by the fleeing Iraqis: steel helmets, live mortar rounds, sacks of potatoes and onions, dented canteens, a clip of bullets, some plastic sandals, a pair of toenail clippers.
The men also came across large supplies of gas masks and filters, and several guerrillas confirmed that each Iraqi soldier had had a mask attached to his belt during the battle.
A Knight Ridder reporter found a chemical decontamination kit that held dusting powder, skin salve, a syringe with atropine and some color-coded litmus paper with instructions on how to test the skin or the air for chemical gases, nerve agents and cyanide.
TV reports from Mosul showed families gathering on rooftops to watch the bombers, and one Arab commentator on the scene said many of Mosul's drivers were honking their horns in celebration.
There were different, quieter celebrations in Kanilan, a village of about 600 farmers and shepherds. Children pointed and shopkeepers smiled as they watched a lone B-52 circling high above them, laying out its four lines of contrail smoke. Outside of town, a large painted portrait of Saddam lay in pieces.
(McDonald reported from Kanilan, Iraq; Landay from northern Iraq; and Dilanian from Bashur, Iraq. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Kevin G. Hall in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.