IN THE SKIES OVER NORTHERN IRAQ—Nearly 1,000 U.S. Army paratroops opened the war's northern front in dramatic fashion Wednesday when they jumped out of low-flying jet airplanes in the dark of night and seized an airfield in Iraq's Kurdish-controlled region.
The bold, carefully planned mission by the 173rd Airborne Brigade was the 29th combat jump in U.S. history, according to brigade officers. The paratroops, many of whom are elite Army Rangers, flew directly from Aviano Air Force Base in northern Italy, which is near their base in Vicenza.
Fifteen Air Force C-17 Globemaster transport planes deposited men and equipment onto an airstrip dubbed Objective Buford near the city of Bashur, 30 miles from the Turkish border. The men and a handful of women had trained to jump at an altitude of around 500 feet and hit the ground at speeds of up to 17 mph.
Once on Iraqi soil, the units were to scramble with their M-4 rifles and 100-pound back packs to pre-determined meeting points, then set up a perimeter and traffic checkpoints around the airfield, which has a runway 6,700 feet long.
The parachute assault, assisted by U.S. Special Forces soldiers working with Kurds on the ground, was designed to establish an American combat force in a region laced with ethnic tensions, said the 173rd's commander, Col. William Mayville.
"I think our presence will act as a stabilizer," Mayville said. "Our presence changes the dynamics of the environment."
The Bashur airfield was chosen because it could handle repeated landings by the 174-foot-long C-17s, Mayville said. The brigade decided to conduct an initial parachute insertion rather then ferry troops in by plane because an air assault insured that a significant combat force could mass almost immediately to protect itself, officers said. On Tuesday, 173rd commanders said they were told that a Special Forces "A" Team was overrun by a force of 100 Iraqis in Irbil, about 35 miles from the drop zone.
"Nobody wants war," said Lt. Col. Dominic Caraccilo, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry, one of the brigade's two infantry battalions. "But this is a paratrooper's dream."
The 173rd's operation is a major departure from the Pentagon's original plan for northern Iraq that called for the Army's heavy 4th Infantry Division, with hundreds of tanks and sophisticated heavy weapons, to move into the north from a staging ground in Turkey. The 173rd, a light infantry unit that lacks armor, was slated to join that effort.
But the Turkish government declined to grant permission for U.S. troops to stage from its soil, so the military's central command changed the plan. As it stands, the relatively lightly armed paratroopers are "flapping out there," as Mayville put it last week, with rifles, mortars, machine guns and anti-tank missiles.
But the colonel said he was confident that with AC-130 gun ships providing air cover his brigade could handle any threat.
The drop zone, within an autonomous Kurdish enclave, was considered "permissive," meaning the soldiers didn't expect to be shot at as they descended to earth with enough gear, food and water to survive for several days.
But commanders remain deeply concerned about a potential threat from Ansar al Islam, a militant Kurdish Islamic group operating in the north. Kurdish officials say dozens of Osama bin Laden's fugitive followers, most of them Arabs, have found refuge with Ansar. Last week, an airplane trying to land on the Bashur field with special forces soldiers had to turn back after it was fired upon, officials said.
"Don't underestimate what a big deal this is," Caraccilo told his troops as they rehearsed the operation last week.
This reporter, embedded with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, was present during the final mission rehearsals and was on one of the massive transport planes from which troopers jumped. After the airfield is secure, the same planes will return and land there with more soldiers and equipment. This reporter was scheduled to fly in on one of those planes and remain embedded with the unit. Other Knight Ridder reporters and photographers are operating independently of the military in Northern Iraq.
The brigade is to establish its base of operations around the airfield. Future missions could involve protecting key northern oilfields or ousting pockets of Iraqi resistance. But among the force's main roles is to keep peace among long-feuding Kurdish factions—and to separate the Kurds from any Turkish troops that may cross into Iraq.
As a result, the young soldiers will find themselves having to make careful decisions about the use of force in an area where men carrying rifles are a feature of the landscape—but not necessarily a threat to the Americans. Two civilian Kurdish interpreters are accompanying the unit, and last week troopers practiced stopping traffic at checkpoints.
"Just because someone is carrying an AK-47, men, that doesn't mean they're the enemy," Sgt 1st Class Jason Gueringer told his platoon on the eve of the mission, as he helped deliver the "op-order" to grim-faced 19- and 20-year-olds in a secure room on the Camp Ederle installation in Vicenza.
Summing up the area's geopolitical quandary in what he called "grunt-speak," Gueringer added: "The Kurds hate the Turks. The Turks don't give a s--- about the Kurds. That presents a problem, right? . . . The Kurds want their own state. We don't want that, and the Turks won't have that. So, there's a huge political sensitivity, you know, huge big pivotal things to look at here. This is big-level political stuff, men, and it could potentially turn into a nightmare."
If American troops hope to guard against Kurdish separatist inclinations, they are also there to dissuade Turkey from making any bold moves in Northern Iraq, commanders said.
Among Turkey's large Kurdish population is a minority of violent extremists who have pressed for an independent Kurdistan, and Turkey has sometimes used brutal methods to suppress them. Turkey has threatened to invade if the Kurds try to establish an independent state.
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Turkey held up approving over flight rights for the mission until the last possible moment, said those involved in planning it.
"I think CENTCOM (U.S. Central Command) really wanted to twist a grapefruit in the Turks' face," said one officer involved in planning the mission.
"It's like, you want to (mess) around with us? Bam, here's 1,000 U.S. paratroopers."
The troops jumped with their Alice rucksacks attached to their waists, packed to the gills with ammunition and gear - including three MRE's, six quarts of water, a Kevlar helmet, a protective mask and chemical suit, knee pads and wind goggles. Some carried radios and machine gun parts.
When they were about 100 feet from the ground, they were to release their packs on a 15-foot rope so those hit the ground first.
For the rest of their essential equipment, including their body armor and additional cold weather gear, they had to pack a separate duffle bag known as the "A" bag, which was expected to arrive in a separate plane a few days after the jump.
A third bag called the "B" bag is filled with non-essential items such as running shoes.
The troops are convinced they will never see their "B" bags.
While many in the brigade are veterans with dozens of practice parachute jumps under their belts, some of the troops are just out of basic training, and others hadn't jumped from an airplane in years, since the five training jumps they completed in parachute school. Yet to a person, the troopers said they were proud and excited about the mission.
"It's nice to be part of it after watching it on CNN," said Brian Gaudettte, 20, of Eugene, Ore. "Our grandparents had World War II, other people had the Gulf War. This is something we can do."
Said Spc. Jonathan Bourne, 25, of Myrtle Beach, S.C., "I think we're making history. Making history and changing the world."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.