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Kurdish guerrillas, U.S. Special Forces fight together in Sheikhan

SHEIKHAN, Iraq—A force of 700 guerrillas and 10 U.S. Special Forces soldiers overran the trading town of Sheikhan and drove Iraqi Army brigade 606 from its headquarters near Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city.

The attack 18 miles north of the city took place as Kurdish guerrillas fighting under U.S. command in the north tightened their grip on Mosul. Advancing Kurdish units also are within 12 miles of the city to the east and within 20 miles to the south.

A guerrilla commander, sitting cross-legged in the grass with some of his men, all weary after a long day of fighting, traced a circle in the middle of his open palm to show where the Iraq troops had been.

"Then we just made a fist," he said, closing his hand, "and we squished them like a tomato."

In Mankubah, east of Mosul, American bombers struck Iraqi positions for a fourth-straight day, but Kurdish guerrillas and Special Forces soldiers still could not capture the now-deserted town. Saddam Fedayeen paramilitaries and Republican Guard tank units continued to dig in and counter-attack.

The guerrilla fighters in Sheikhan—known in Iraqi Kurdistan as peshmerga, or "those who face death"—were still counting the Iraqi dead late Sunday afternoon, but their commander said they had captured 230 prisoners, including several senior members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and two army colonels.

The rest of the Iraqi regime's forces withdrew across a wide plain of wheat and barley to the town of Shef-Shireen, at the foothills of the Sumrid Mountains. The peshmerga said the Iraqis have a number of tanks and heavy artillery pieces there.

"But we have plenty of rocket-propelled grenades," the peshmerga commander said brightly. "We can treat tanks very, very badly."

In seven hours of fighting, he said, the peshmerga lost only one man.

"I'm impressed and amazed," a tired U.S. Special Forces soldier said after the battle. "They took this whole thing, this whole place, and sustained only one KIA (killed in action). That's incredible."

Sheikhan and its military post were first hammered by U.S. bombers around dawn, followed by the ground attack. The sky was heavily overcast, so the planes were less effective on this day than they might have been.

"The air piece didn't do much for the peshmerga, although I'm sure it boosted them psychologically," said the U.S. soldier, who did not want his name used. "Their ground assault is what made this happen."

The bombing shattered nearly every window in the town of 12,000, and inflicted serious damage on the high school, public library, police station and Baath Party headquarters. One bomb, which left a crater 20 feet deep, destroyed eight homes in a residential housing block near the town square.

The bomb killed one man, but residents said he had been firing at the planes with a Kalashnikov rifle.

"We don't blame the Americans for this, not at all," said Jihad Abdulmanaf, a kerosene dealer who lost his home and three Volkswagens in the bombing. A dozen of his assembled neighbors murmured in agreement. "The Americans have finally driven those damned Baathists out of our town. We are happy they have come. They are most welcome."

"This is nothing to us," said a neighbor, sweeping his hand across the rubble of the neighborhood. "Fighting and bombing is nothing new to us. For us, this is as normal as having a salad."

The American troopers said they hadn't expected the Iraqis to fight so fiercely.

"I thought they'd go, `Here's my gun. Have a nice day,'" said one of the soldiers. "Not quite. I'd say the opposition they put up was pretty stiff."

The victorious peshmerga ransacked the Iraqis' large military compound—the sign at the entrance to the camp read, "They enemy will not scare us"—and they turned up large supplies of gas masks but no evidence of chemical weapons.

In one barracks, they found a poster describing the secret emergency calls to be used in case of a gas attack. The radio code for a chemical attack was 9-9-9, and 5-5-5 for a biological attack.

The repeated words "Qamer! Qamer! Qamer!" were the password for the all clear, which in English mean "Moon, moon, moon."


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BATTLENORTH