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Paratroopers mark beginning of U.S. buildup in northern Iraq

HARIR, Iraq—The arrival of 1,000 U.S. paratroopers in northern Iraq marked the beginning of a U.S. troop buildup here that is intended to prevent trouble between Kurds and Turks, secure Iraq's big northern oil fields and give Saddam Hussein something new to think about.

The "hanky-poppers" from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade arrived from a European air base Wednesday night and quickly secured a small, abandoned airport on the plain of Harir, near a farming town in the mountainous heart of Iraqi Kurdistan.

About 12 C-17 transport planes landed at the base Thursday, bringing vehicles and more troops, nearly doubling the troop strength. Thirty-six more planes are expected to land in the next several days, and then the plan is for two planes a day for resupply purposes.

The Harir base was ringed Thursday with mud-covered American sentries on duty in cold and rain. It will serve as a base of operations for the arrival of more coalition forces, artillery and supplies in the north. Two large CH-53 helicopters sat on the single-strip runway as darkness descended.

The base is in Kurdistan, the autonomous region of northeastern Iraq that lies beyond the control of the Baghdad regime and is home to 4 million ethnic Iraqi Kurds. Harir is 45 miles northeast of the Kurdish city of Irbil.

The fresh troops to come were expected to join with Kurdish fighters to advance on the important oil city of Kirkuk as well as Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city and the home of two divisions of the Republican Guard.

The presence of the Americans is meant to prevent fighting between the Kurds and military forces from neighboring Turkey that may cross into Iraq.

The U.S.-led units might also be used to bear down on Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, and, eventually, Baghdad.

For now, however, the lightly armed Americans would face serious opposition if they left the mountains of Kurdistan to fight Saddam's 1st Corps and 5th Corps, said military analyst Anthony H. Cordesman of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. Getting heavy weapons to them on the transport planes will take time.

Meanwhile on Thursday, thousands of Iraqi soldiers defending Kirkuk suddenly withdrew from frontlines facing Kurd-held territory, strewing mines along a highway in their wake. The retreat came after a week of U.S. airstrikes, and only hours after the paratroopers landed in Harir.

The troops, who had held the positions for 12 years, belonged to the Iraqi army's 1st Corps. They had been manning the outermost ring of three defensive cordons surrounding Kirkuk and the oilfields.

The withdrawal appeared to have been made in great haste, and it was not immediately clear how far the Iraqi soldiers pulled back. Troops abandoned heavy machine guns, mortars, ammunition, gas masks and personal belongings in muddy, rain-soaked trenches and bunkers dug into low-lying hills.

Kurdish guerrillas found a barefoot Iraqi soldier who appeared about 18 and wore a grimy uniform, cowering in a bunker. The soldier, apparently a deserter, was too scared to speak.

The pullback appeared part of an effort to build up the fortifications nearer to Kirkuk, or it may have been intended to keep the troops under tighter control. Iraqi Army deserters who turned themselves over to Kurdish rebels have described the frontline units as ill-fed and ill-clothed, with no enthusiasm for a fight. Another possible explanation for the withdrawal was that Iraqi commanders feared the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq could ignite an uprising by Kurds in the Kirkuk district.

Over several years, Saddam's regime has driven tens of thousands of Kurds and other minorities out of Kirkuk and into the Kurdish rebel-held enclave. Other Kurds remained in Kirkuk, and some form an underground rebel movement there.

Kurdish rebel leaders have said they have agreed to a U.S. request that displaced Kurds should be allowed to return in an orderly way after the city is taken from the Iraqi army's control.

U.S. strategists have placed a high priority on seizing and securing the oil assets in Kirkuk.

The war planners originally wanted to launch a northern front with 62,000 troops, mostly from the 4th Infantry Division, arriving from Turkey. Those forces would have pinched Saddam's forces from the north as the bulk of the coalition assault pushed up from Kuwait in the south.

But when the Turkish government refused to allow coalition troops to deploy from Turkish soil, the northern front via Turkey was delayed, then altered, then abandoned. It is now expected that coalition troops, armored vehicles and artillery will be flown into several other small airstrips inside Kurdistan.

Saddam had the Harir airstrip built 20 years ago to facilitate his campaign of persecution against the Kurds.

"Saddam confiscated my land and then built that airport to terrorize us," said Farhan Rasool, a Kurdish grain merchant and part-owner of the wheat fields where the U.S. paratroopers are bivouacked. "The Americans are staying there now, so I cannot use my land. But if that's the cost of us living in freedom, I am happy to pay that cost."

Small teams of U.S. Special Forces have been operating in the north for the past few weeks, gathering intelligence, scouting targets and directing air strikes. But Kurdish guerrilla leaders and politicians, desperately spoiling for a fight with Saddam's troopers, have expressed frustration over the relatively light and sporadic bombing of the north, especially as they watched the heavy, frequent strikes on Baghdad and the south.

Marine Maj. Gen. Henry "Pete" Osman met with northern opposition leaders this week in nearby Salahaddin, addressing their concerns and briefing them on military and political issues.

Osman was a chemistry major in college, and he will be hard-pressed to manage the flammable political chemistry at play in Kurdistan. Armies from the two dominant parties in the region—the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—fought a civil war several years ago. In the buildup to the current war, however, they have joined with other opposition groups in an uneasy alliance.

Meanwhile, most of the local people were happy to see the Americans camped in the sodden fields below their town.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-NORTH'