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Iraqi troops pulling back from positions in northern front

KALAK, Iraq—A large crack began to open in the northern front Tuesday as some of Saddam Hussein's most battered but resolute troopers prepared to pull back from their long-held frontline positions east of Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city.

Pounded by days and nights of American bombing and missile strikes, Iraqi infantrymen and anti-aircraft gunners on a ridge above the village of Kalak were seen collapsing their earthen bunkers, packing up their tents and loading weapons into camouflaged trucks.

The drab little village of Kalak, home to a few hundred Kurdish farmers and shepherds, has suddenly assumed an outsized strategic importance in the slow-to-develop northern theater of the war. Iraqi troopers have been dug into a ridgeline above the town, the better to guard an important bridgehead on the four-lane highway that connects Mosul and Baghdad.

The modern New Bridge, which spans a broad Tigris River tributary where it runs through Kalak, could become a major gateway for coalition troops. As it stands now, it's an impassable choke point: Kurdish forces control the eastern half of the bridge but Baghdad's troopers hold the western end.

On a warm Tuesday afternoon, however, smiling Kurdish commanders peered hungrily through their field glasses at their Iraqi counterparts a few hundred yards away.

The Kurdish commander on the scene said his men were poised to take over the Iraqi bridgehead and bunker positions if they are abandoned. He said he was merely awaiting orders from his superiors in the Kurdistan Democratic Party. KDP leaders have placed their men, an estimated 40,000 regular soldiers and guerrillas, under the control of U.S. Central Command.

There was no immediate indication whether the KDP forces would be permitted to capture the bridge. But late Tuesday afternoon, Wajih Barzani, the brother of KDP chief Massoud Barzani, arrived with a military team to inspect the developing situation above Kalak.

U.S. special forces have been working with local guerrillas to direct airstrikes in the area north of Irbil, the capital city of the largely autonomous enclave of Kurdistan. In several places along the Iraqi-Kurdistan border, opposing forces can watch each other without binoculars. In Kalak, they can hear each other's radios.

To the south, there have been numerous defections by Iraqi soldiers. Since March 27, Iraqi forces have retreated some 20 miles near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and now occupy only the innermost of what had been three defensive belts of bunkers and trench lines around the city.

The Adnan Division of the Republican Guard, normally based in Mosul, has been re-deployed to defend Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, but the troop strength in Kalak has remained high. There have been only a handful of desertions, and snipers defiantly and regularly shoot at guerrillas, villagers and journalists.

In other activity Tuesday in Irbil, special forces took over the city's best restaurant as a command center. Across the road, engineering teams made improvements to the capital's weed-choked little airstrip.


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