KANI MASI, Iraq—An incandescent storm of flaming steel fragments lashed the Iraqi Army bunkers on Mirwari Mountain as the cluster bomb's cargo of bomblets cascaded out of the ink-black sky.
"That's burning hot," the U.S. Special Forces air controller called to the F-15 fighter now hurling away from the fires twinkling atop the dark mastiff less than two miles away. "Thanks for the good work and good night."
The mountain, behind which a division of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard may be massed, helps anchor the western end of what remains of Iraqi defenses along the border of rebel Kurd-held territory in northern Iraq.
Just how much longer those lines will hold is increasingly uncertain.
The five-man U.S. Special Forces team that coordinated the air strike early Tuesday is playing a small but central part in a slow, steady advance against Iraqi forces holding key towns and oilfields in the north.
Hammered by around-the-clock bombing for more than two weeks, Iraqi forces have pulled back to the edges of the oil center of Kirkuk and the nearby towns of Tuz Khurmatu, Jalula and Khanaqin, according to Kurdish officials.
It was almost certain that air strikes in the Khanaqin area also have been targeting the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, an Iranian rebel group armed and financed by Saddam.
Kurdish rebels, known as peshmerga, or "those who face death," have moved into the abandoned positions, advancing 20 miles in one location alone. U.S. Special Forces accompanying the Kurds are now working to "soften up" the remnants of the Iraqi defenses with more air strikes.
The strategy, initiated after Turkey refused to allow 60,000 U.S. troops to invade northern Iraq from its territory, appears to be aimed at tying up Iraqi forces that might otherwise be rushed to defend Baghdad.
Peshmerga commanders anxious to avenge Saddam's persecution of the Kurds insist that the Iraqi lines will crumble before an all-out offensive. All they need, they say, is a word from the war's commander, Gen. Tommy Franks. It's not apparent that they'll get it because of American concerns about Turkey's threat to invade the region if the Kurds are allowed to take control of the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk.
The Kurds have assembled large numbers of peshmergas and are ready to rush interim administrators and security forces to regime-held towns that fall. They have even made new signs for municipal offices and schools.
Yet the "softening up" strategy goes on.
As daylight faded Monday evening, the five-man Special Forces unit slipped its Land Rovers into a grassy depression northwest of Khanaqin, a regime-held town from which most Kurds were expelled and their properties given to Arabs. The Khanaqin area was hit hard that night. B-52s dropped 36 precision-guided weapons and numerous gravity bombs.
With the vehicles out of sight, the team and four Kurdish fighters trudged up a wind-swept hill and settled into an abandoned Iraqi trench.
A light drizzle and thick overcast foretold a cold, uncomfortable night. The growl of a prowling U.S. aircraft foretold a night of violence.
"This is the furthest the peshmerga have been since 1991," noted the unit commander, a burley veteran of 19 years and an avid Chicago Cubs fan.
A Knight Ridder reporter and photographer were invited to spend the night with the team on condition that its identity, call signs and members' names were not disclosed.
Also: No lights. Low voices. No smoking. Only peshmerga above the trench line. Here's the mosquito juice. Want some chew?
The unit leader, his deputy and the air controller quickly began surveying through the green hue of their night vision scopes rolling hills and ridgelines sweeping westward to Mirwari Mountain and eastward toward the Iranian border.
Far to the south lay Saddam Hussein's besieged capital of Baghdad.
Kneeling at the bottom of the trench, the communications sergeant spoke by radio in soft, unhurried tones with other Special Forces units. The weapons sergeant stood watch, scanning for infiltrators approaching from the rear.
Earlier that day, a peshmerga patrol had scoped out potential targets up ahead and passed on the coordinates.
Top priority: the bunkers atop Mirwari Mountain, designated Hill 323 by the Americans. Take the mountain, and the defenses around Khanaqin would crumble.
But then a pair of headlights crawled slowly over the lip of a darkened ridgeline a little more than three miles to the east and began rolling west. Then a second pair. Soon, there were more than 50 pairs and growing.
"We have a lot of vehicles moving," radioed the communications sergeant to a nearby Special Forces unit.
Yes, it was an Iraqi convoy, confirmed the other team, which was closer and had a far better view. It took over the job of directing an attack by all available aircraft. The bunkers would have to wait for more "birds" to show up.
The commander gave another reason for deferring to the other unit: "What if it is a convoy of refugees? We will not engage a target unless we have positive eyes on it."
Suddenly, another pair of headlights showed up, only these were just one quarter of a mile away and moving slowly away from the Iraqi lines.
"Everyone down!" urged the commander. As he grabbed a shoulder-fired rocket and trained it on the headlights, a peshmerga quietly slipped away to investigate.
Seconds passed. The vehicle snaked around the base of the hill. The peshmerga returned. No problem. It held other peshmergas.
The second Special Forces team guided a B-52 bomber toward the convoy. At 9:37 p.m., a bright flash lit up the horizon, followed seconds later by a sharp crump. Six more minutes, another flash, another crump.
Two F-16s flew over, but low fuel forced them to leave. Another F-16 lacked the infrared sensor needed to "see" the heat of the vehicles.
By the time another jet arrived, the convoy had broken up and the pilot spotted only a handful of parked cars.
So attention refocused on Hill 323.
A first attempt to hit the bunkers was aborted. The controller had given the pilot a coordinate wrong and he had then run low on fuel. Then came two F-15s slung with cluster bombs.
Before authorizing an attack, the air controller and commander wanted to make sure that their location was clear to the pilots. The commander hefted his rifle, turned on a small laser unit mounted on the side of the barrel and pointed it skyward in a procedure known as "sparkling." Then he lowered the barrel and waved it in small circles in the direction of Mirwari Mountain. This is known as "roping."
Alerted to the origin of the laser beam, the pilots made their runs, dropping a total of three cluster bombs.
And then came the rain.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):