NEAR KIRKUK, Iraq—The full extent of the withdrawal of Iraqi troops defending the northern oil city of Kirkuk was clear today as I made my way from rebel Kurd-held territory to within 6 miles of the center of the city.
Guided through very beautiful, isolated green hills along goat trails and dry stream beds by Kurdish militiamen, Knight Ridder newspapers photographer Tom Pennington and I determined that Iraqi forces have pulled back some 20 miles since March 27. They now occupy the innermost of three defensive belts of bunkers and trench lines that had been built around Kirkuk.
From a ridge to the north of Kirkuk, we could see the derricks of dozens of oil wells southeast and northwest of the city. The view of Kirkuk itself included Saddam Hospital, the hangars of Kirkuk airport and a number of petroleum tank farms.
Several loud explosions echoed out of the city, the target of days of U.S. bombing and cruise-missile strikes.
The reason for the withdrawal remains unknown, although Kurdish rebel commanders think the Iraqis have been forced to consolidate their lines to reduce their exposure to intense American airstrikes.
There was little sign that Kurdish rebel forces were moving to take over the massive amount of territory that the Iraqi army relinquished. Not a single Kurdish guerrilla was seen during the trip by truck and by foot to the ridge overlooking Kirkuk.
In fact, hardly anyone was up in those hills. Walking single file through dry spring beds, we were startled once by the sudden flight of two large owls.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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