- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

CHAMCHAMAL, Iraq U.S. forces carried the war to northern Iraq yesterday with cruise-missile attacks, an aerial bombardment and midnight landings in Kurdish-held areas by Special Forces.
A massive bombardment hit midmorning near this city on the front lines between Iraqi government and Kurdish rebel positions. The bombings shook the earth, broke windows and sent civilians fleeing deeper into the Kurdish-held north.
"They were massive," said Mohammad Omar Mohammad, a laborer in the all-but-deserted Chamchamal bazaar. "The ground beneath my feet moved."
The northern offensive, aimed primarily at the oil-rich cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, as well as President Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, has been complicated by Turkey's refusal to let troops and equipment be introduced into Iraq from its territory.
But there has been no lack of support from the pro-American Kurds, who since 1991 have enjoyed relative prosperity in a northern enclave protected by U.S. and British aircraft.
"We want the Americans to come here," said Mohammad Haji Mahmoud, leader of the Kurdistan Social Democratic Party and a key member of the Iraqi opposition to Saddam. "And they don't have to give us anything, not 1 cent."
Kirkuk residents reached by telephone yesterday afternoon reported an unknown number of casualties from the bombardment, which remained heavy through the day. Witnesses also spoke of massive bombardments near Mosul.
American clandestine services have been scouting the Kurdish north for months, preparing air bases and installing communications antennas. But the military offensive did not start until early Saturday, when 40 to 50 cruise missiles launched from the Red Sea struck positions of Ansar al Islam, an Islamic militant group suspected of having ties to al Qaeda.
The offensive continued Sunday morning with the landing of coalition aircraft delivering U.S. Special Forces to various air strips. "They were big birds," said one high-level Kurdish official in Sulaymaniyah.
Marine Col. Keith Lawless, speaking to journalists before a press briefing on humanitarian affairs in Salahaddin, confirmed yesterday that American forces had arrived in northern Iraq.
Witnesses said the forces boarded buses near Sulaymaniyah yesterday and were seen heading toward Halabja, close to the Ansar camp next to the Iranian border.
Many, meanwhile, worry about a repeat of their experience in 1991, when 1,000 people a day died of cold and hunger after a failed uprising at the end of the Gulf war.
Residents have begun an orderly exodus from frontline towns such as Chamchamal and vacated major cities out of fear of chemical attacks, which Saddam used against rebellious Kurds in the late 1980s.
The economy of the north a source of pride for Kurds, who now live better than other Iraqis or the Kurds in Turkey has all but collapsed.
"The economy is almost at a standstill," said Barham Salih, the prime minister of the southeastern half of the autonomous Kurdish zone. "There is no trade across the borders."
The overwhelming assault on Ansar's stronghold includes an attack on sites held by the Islamic Group despite that organization's attempt to remain neutral between the Kurds and Ansar. More than 100 members of the Islamic Group have been killed and injured.
Mr. Salih said Islamic Group members had been warned of the attack. "We have continuously advised the Islamic Group to stay away from Ansar al Islam to dissociate themselves from Ansar al Islam politically, militarily and geographically," he said in an interview.
"Regrettably, they did not heed our advice, and they suffered the consequences. They should cut all their ties with Ansar. You cannot claim neutrality in that geographic proximity."
In the war against terrorists, he said, "people cannot have it both ways."

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