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Iraq: U.S. Bombs Northern Iraqi Cities, Beefs Up Military Presence In Kurdish Areas

The cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, home to northern Iraq's largest oil fields, were hit by repeated U.S. missiles strikes and air raids over the weekend. At the same time, U.S. special forces and Kurdish fighters hostile to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein are reportedly preparing an offensive against positions held by Ansar al-Islam -- an Islamic armed group with alleged links to Al-Qaeda -- near the Iranian border.

Prague, 24 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Following Turkey's decision on 20 March to open its airspace to U.S. warplanes, the Pentagon has launched a two-pronged attack on Iraq's northern provinces.

The industrial cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, which hold some of Iraq's largest oil deposits, have been struck by intensive U.S. bombing over the weekend in a bid to rout Iraqi forces.

Fresh strikes were reported overnight in Mosul, located some 380 kilometers north of Baghdad on the banks of the Tigris River.

The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite television channel broadcast pictures showing the sky over the city filled with plumes of dark smoke after a series of explosions. The Arabic-language channel claims Mosul was hit by missiles coming from the Syrian border, but the report could not be independently confirmed.

There was no immediate report of casualties.

Speaking on state television today, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein urged his troops, particularly defenders of Mosul and Baghdad, to stand firm against the U.S.-led coalition: "The enemy has become embroiled in our holy land of the valiant people. Strike them, our heroic mujahedin. Strike your enemy with all force and precision, all noble Iraqis. Lure the enemy to the point where they find themselves unable to continue or to commit more crimes against you or your nation or humanity. At that time, you will reap stability and grandeur as a result of your victory."

To the southeast, U.S. bombers today pounded Iraqi bunker positions near Chamchamal, a town located on the road that links Kirkuk to Suleymaniah, the headquarters of the anti-Hussein Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main factions that control northern Iraq's Kurdish provinces. Explosions were also heard in the early morning hours in the direction of Kirkuk.

Addressing journalists in Baghdad today, Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf claimed victory over what he said were U.S.-led airborne operations in the country's south and north: "[U.S. and British forces] tried to drop some of their mercenaries near An Najaf and Karbala [in the south], and they were surrounded and they fled. They tried the same in the north, near Kirkuk. They were chased and they fled."

Al-Sahhaf's claims could not be confirmed.

Meanwhile, local PUK commanders say there is increased military activity in Iraq's north, indicating the U.S.-led coalition may be close to opening a second front against Baghdad.

Pentagon planners have said that securing the Kirkuk and Mosul oil facilities before Iraqi forces could possibly destroy them is one of their main war objectives. Washington says Iraq's large hydrocarbon reserves will be needed to reconstruct the country after the conflict.

Small groups of American special forces entering from Turkey have been operating in northern Iraq's Kurdish areas for the past six to seven weeks, mainly for reconnaissance and logistical purposes. The U.S. has been refurbishing airfields and building new runways in the region in anticipation of possible airborne operations.

The U.S. is reportedly stepping up its military presence in the area. But Iran's official IRNA news agency today quotes a local PUK commander (Fouad Maasum) as saying that the number of American soldiers deployed in the region is not sufficient to allow for the opening of a second front against Baghdad.

Yesterday, a Reuters correspondent spotted a group of American troops near Suleymaniah, and senior PUK officials told Agence France Presse that four U.S. transport planes carrying about 300 special forces had landed on an airstrip outside that city.

Eyewitnesses quoted by both news agencies say lightly armed U.S. soldiers were deployed eastward near Halabjah, some 20 kilometers from the Iranian border, while others headed for Arbil to the west.

The area between Halabjah and Iran is controlled by Ansar al-Islam (Supporters of Islam), a mainly Kurdish Islamic group that the U.S. accuses of having ties with both the Iraqi regime and Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network. An offshoot of another Islamic group known as Jund al-Islam (Army of Islam), Ansar al-Islam became public in late 2001.

Although it has a number of Arab militants in its ranks, including some Afghan-trained, Ansar al-Islam has rejected any links with Al-Qaeda, saying U.S. accusations were designed to justify military action against Hussein's regime.

The group, which is said to number between 400 and 700 fighters, has been battling PUK's fighters, or peshmergas, in recent months for control over a string of border villages. The PUK accuses Ansar al-Islam of directing a string of attacks against its officials in recent months.

Dozens of U.S. cruise missiles and bombs hit Ansar al-Islam's positions on 21 and 22 March. Yesterday, the PUK said it had launched rocket strikes on Kurdish Islamic militants, vowing to wipe them out of the rugged hills that stretch under a chain of snowcapped mountain peaks along the Iranian border.

An unconfirmed Al-Jazeera report says 12 villagers and Ansar al-Islam fighters were killed in the joint U.S.-PUK weekend attacks.

BBC television today reported a series of explosions in the area in what could be the prelude to a major offensive to allow PUK forces to move south. The BBC says the campaign is expected to involve up to 5,000 PUK peshmergas, possibly backed by some 100 to 200 U.S. special forces.

American forces reportedly targeted another Kurdish Islamic group over the weekend. PUK officials told Agence France Presse on 22 March that U.S. missiles hit the offices of the Komala Islami Kurdistan (Islamic Society of Kurdistan), in Khurmal, some 15 kilometers northeast of Halabjah.

Eyewitnesses say the missile strikes left between 50 and 100 people dead and that clashes opposing PUK and Komala forces erupted on 22 March.

It is unclear why the U.S. military apparently targeted the Komala, whose roots are in Iran and which controls a tiny territory between positions held by the PUK and Ansar al-Islam. The PUK has in the past offered financial aid to Komala while blaming the group for not cooperating against Ansar al-Islam.

Addressing the United Nations Security Council, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on 7 February identified Khurmal as the site of a chemical weapons plant run by Ansar al-Islam, but PUK sources have insisted the claim was unfounded.

In what has been described as retaliation for the weekend U.S. missile strikes, Komala two days ago reportedly staged a suicide car bombing in Sayyid Sadiq, a village located on the Halabjah-Suleymaniah road. No one has claimed responsibility for the blast, which killed at least two PUK fighters and an Australian television journalist.