- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2003

QARA HANJIR, Iraq Kurdish rebels consolidated their hold yesterday on a key town overlooking the northern oil center of Kirkuk and said they routed a band of Islamic extremists from their stronghold on the Iranian border.
A network of freshly dug trenches criss-crossed the hastily abandoned Iraqi positions in Qara Hanjir, where Saddam Hussein's forces pulled out in the face of U.S. missile attacks late last week.
Gas masks and vials of nerve gas antidotes littered the floor of a building belonging to Saddam's Ba'ath Party in the hilltop town overlooking Kirkuk, a major American target.
The material bolstered U.S. suspicions that the Iraqis plan to use chemical or biological weapons in the war.
Bullets, plastic slippers and macaroni also were strewn about, along with a notebook marked "political lessons" containing handwritten essays denouncing the United States.
U.S.-allied Kurdish militiamen known as "peshmerga" moved quickly to secure the village as the Iraqis retreated. "It's like I've been born again," said Baqer Faraj, a Kurd who used a bulldozer to topple a monument to Saddam.
Witnesses also said Kurdish soldiers, backed by dozens of U.S. Special Forces, had seized control of a cluster of towns in the Halabja area, 100 miles southeast of here, from a militant Islamic group linked to al Qaeda.
Ansar-al-Islam, described by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell as part of a "sinister nexus" tying Saddam to international terrorism, has kept a Taliban-like grip on the towns along the Iranian border.
A U.S. official in Ankara, Turkey, told Agence France-Presse that about 8,000 Kurdish fighters were involved in the attack and that 130 Ansar bodies had been recovered. Western journalists accompanying the Kurds said two Kurdish fighters were killed and perhaps 20 wounded in the operation.
"All of the villages are controlled now by us," said Kosrat Rasool Ali, a Kurdish political and military leader.
From Qara Hanjir, fires presumably caused by U.S. missiles could be seen raging in Kirkuk, a key oil center that American forces hope to secure to protect Iraq's oil industry.
"Iraqi troops were defending Kirkuk from this position," said Mohammad Galali, a Kurdish militiaman at the village. "If they have pulled back, it means they can no longer defend it."
More than a 1,000 American troops have parachuted and flown into the autonomous Kurdish area, and more are expected to move against Kirkuk, Mosul and Tikrit, all of which remain under Baghdad's grip.
The strongly pro-American Kurds have been under U.S. and British aerial protection since 1991, when they established their autonomous area.
"Help is on the way," White House envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said in Sulaymaniyah on Friday. "Help is now here until the job is done."
The Kurds have promised the United States they won't move toward Kirkuk lest they provoke an invasion of Iraq by Turkey. Ankara worries that the Kurds will establish an independent state and inspire Turkey's large Kurdish minority to revolt.
But Kurdish officials have said they will fill security vacuums as Iraqi control over Kurdish areas disintegrates. "We're here for security, to prevent robbing and looting," said one.
The Kurds' hold on the newly won territory remained far from secure. About a dozen Iraqi shells and rockets from Kiruk landed in and around the frontline Kurdish city of Chamchamal, shaking the ground and causing people to flee. At least one person was injured, Kurdish military officials said.
The dilapidated roads leading from Chamchamal to Qala Hanjir go through territory depopulated in the late 1980s in a campaign to relocate Kurds from rural villages to cities. The area is a no man's land dotted with ruins of crushed villages.
Nazem Hussein, carrying a Kalashnikov rifle and guarding an outpost near the farthest point of Kurdish control, said he once owned much of the land in the area before he was deported.

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