- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

U.S. forces are flowing into northern Iraq in preparation for what the Pentagon calls its "northern option" to oust Saddam Hussein's government.
After abandoning plans to gain access to the north from Turkey for 60,000 troops, war commanders have moved to Plan B: sending troops and equipment by aircraft, defense officials said.
On Wednesday, about 1,000 paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade were dropped by aircraft on an airfield near Bashur, about 45 miles northeast of Irbil in Kurdish-controlled Iraq.
The airborne troops are the first of what officials anticipate to be more than 3,000 soldiers who will secure key areas of northern Iraq, including strategic oil fields near Kirkuk and Mosul.
"This tightens the noose against Saddam's forces battling coalition forces to the south," Brig. Gen. James Parker, commander of U.S. forces in the north, told the Associated Press in Bashur. "And it may also serve as a warning to Turkish forces."
Turkish forces have been massing along the Iraqi border in what U.S. intelligence officials said appeared to be preparation for a major military incursion into Iraq. Turkey's government is worried that anti-Turk ethnic Kurds will set up a separate state in northern Iraq.
The U.S. government has said it is committed to keeping Iraq intact after Saddam is ousted. Iraqi Kurds control a large area of northern Iraq stretching from the Syrian border to areas near Iran.
Numerous U.S. and allied air strikes were carried out yesterday throughout northern Iraq as bombers attacked Iraqi ground forces near the towns of Kalak and Chamchamal.
Army Brig. Gen. Vince Brooks, U.S. Central Command's vice operations chief, said yesterday that the troops in the north "increase the number of options" for action in the overall war plan, including pressuring the Iraqi government.
Iraq has large numbers of troops and forces deployed along the so-called green line separating Kurdish areas from Baghdad-controlled areas.
The U.S. forces in the north can be used to keep stability there and to attack Iraqi troops, Gen. Brooks said. "They can be used offensively," he told reporters in Qatar.
The airborne troops augment several hundred U.S. Special Forces soldiers that have been working with anti-Saddam Kurdish fighters in the region. CIA Special Operations Group officers also are in the area.
"Kirkuk is key," said Army Maj. Mike Hastings, one of the 173rd Airborne troopers in Iraq near Irbil. "The Iraqis want it, the Kurds want it, the Turks want it and various other ethnic groups also want it.
"What this drop means is that we can secure it until we are relieved by other forces," Maj. Hastings said.
The Army paratroopers were seen drifting silently from transport aircraft on a dark, moonless night during the drop. Along with the soldiers, transports dropped heavy equipment, including Humvees. The soldiers spent Wednesday night regrouping and finding the vehicles.
The northern option was delayed by the refusal of the Turkish government to allow the Army's 4th Infantry Division to use Turkey as a staging area for a thrust into northern Iraq with 60,000 troops. The 4th Infantry is on its way to Kuwait and will become part of the southern offensive.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the troops in northern Iraq are building up.
"It gives us somewhat better ability to make sure that the northern oil fields are not set on fire or destroyed by the Iraqi military. It gives us a better ability to work closely with the Kurds," Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters after a congressional hearing.
"It clearly ought to give confidence in the Turkish government that we're physically present in a way that will enable us to assure that our commitment is to keep one single country intact rather than allowing it to be broken into pieces."
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul E. Vallely said the initial 1,000 paratroopers are an advance force for a "brigade-plus" of Army troops who will be armed with armored vehicles, helicopters and light artillery.
Once the airfield is secure from attack, more than 3,000 troops will be transported to the base. Armored vehicles are likely to be flown in aboard giant C-5 transports that could begin round-the-clock flights from Italy, where the 173rd is based.
"I think the strategy in the north will be for those forces to hold the ground and prevent any of Saddam's forces from escaping to Turkey or Syria," Gen. Vallely said in an interview. "They'll block those roads and seal off Baghdad from the north."
Another key objective of the United States is to secure the northern oil fields against sabotage by Iraqi forces. U.S. intelligence earlier this month detected Iraqis planting explosives on some oil facilities.
"This is going to be a stabilizing force, although they will have to take Mosul and Kirkuk," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney. "Securing the oil fields will be critical."
Gen. McInerney said the northern forces are "more like an Afghanistan campaign," where U.S. forces will work with opposition Iraqis.
A senior defense official said the United States does not expect to use Kurdish opposition forces in any offensive against Baghdad. "We'd like to see the Kurds stay put," the official said.
Meanwhile, in Baghdad, Ezzat Ibrahim, who commands the northern part of Iraq, told reporters that Iraqi forces are ready to battle U.S. troops in the north.
"The Iraqis, whether from the armed forces, the [ruling] Ba'ath Party, the people and the tribes are in a strong position because our preparations were more than required for this battle," he said.

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