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Iraq: All Quiet On Iraq's Northern Front? Not Quite, Military Experts Say

As coalition forces are preparing to launch a massive ground assault on Baghdad, military activity on a much lower scale is taking place in Iraq's effectively autonomous Kurdish north. Reports, however, say an increasing number of U.S. troops are being airlifted into the area, including some 1,000 U.S. paratroopers who dropped into the region overnight. At the same time, Iraqi forces positioned across the demarcation line that separates Kurdistan from the rest of the country are enduring continued air raids. RFE/RL discusses possible military developments in the region with two British defense analysts.

Prague, 27 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With the U.S.-led war on Iraq entering its second week, there is still no sign of large-scale combat operations north of Baghdad.

For the past six days or so, U.S. warplanes and cruise missiles have been pounding Iraqi positions around the industrial cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, southwest of the country's predominantly Kurdish region. The U.S. Air Force has also carried out several raids on Iraqi Army bunkers near Chamchamal, on the road that links Kirkuk to the Kurdish town of Suleymaniah.

Further east, Kurdish peshmergas (fighters) and U.S. Special Forces have been battling against a small, hard-line Islamic group allegedly linked to Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network. Ansar al-Islam, also known as Pishtiwanani Islam la Kurdistan, is holding a string of villages located between Halabjah and the Iranian border. Last week, the group reportedly suffered a number of casualties inflicted by U.S. bombing.

Another Islamic group, Komala Islami Kurdistan, also came under coalition air raids, which eyewitness say claimed the lives of up to 100 people.

Despite an increasing military presence, it seems that Washington has decided to put the capture of Mosul, Kirkuk, and their large oil fields on the back burner.

The military command of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main factions that have been effectively running Iraq's north since the end of the 1991 Gulf War, yesterday said it had no immediate plan to cross the demarcation line that separates the region from Baghdad-controlled areas.

Press reports coming from the region suggest the peshmerga rank-and-file, who earlier this week sounded upbeat at the imminence of a northern assault, are getting frustrated at the delay.

Phillip Mitchell is a retired British career officer who now works as a ground-forces analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). He says one of the main missions assigned to U.S. forces is to assist PUK fighters in attacking Ansar al-Islam's positions in Khurmal, near the Iranian border.

Another aim, Mitchell believes, is to plan and carry out sabotage raids against Iraqi positions south of the demarcation line. "With the special forces in that area, what [the Americans] will be able to do is to carry out guerrilla raids using the Kurds for local knowledge of both the Iraqi locations and terrain, harass [Iraqi soldiers], keep them on their toes, and by doing this, by destroying bridges, command-and-control sites, and that sort of things, hopefully, prevent them from reinforcing the Baghdad area," Mitchell said.

To the south, coalition forces are rushing through the desert with the intended aim of laying siege to Baghdad as soon as possible.

Reports yesterday said the U.S. 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division, supported by another division moving from the southwest, was less than 100 kilometers from the capital.

U.S.-British troops are readying to confront Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard and other elite units that are believed to be deployed around and inside the city. Military experts believe the battle for Baghdad will be the fiercest of the campaign.

Ellie Goldsworthy runs the U.K. Armed Forces Program at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies (RUSI). This former army commanding officer believes coalition troops posted in northern Iraq will make an important contribution to the upcoming battle. "I think that one way of another these troops are going to contribute to an element of surprise, whether that is deception, diversion or whatever it is. But it is going to contribute to the problems that Saddam is going to face when the [battle] for Baghdad happens," Goldsworthy said.

Goldsworthy believes that, contrary to what scarce reports coming from northern Iraq suggest, the area is the scene of intense military preparations involving special forces and, possibly, airborne troops.

In confirmation of Goldsworthy's comments, the Pentagon today said some 1,000 paratroopers were dropped overnight south of the Turkish border. Tanks and armored vehicles will follow soon to reinforce what a U.S. official quoted by Agence France Presse described as "the first sizable force in northern Iraq."

The possibility of an airlift operation was suggested immediately after NATO member Turkey earlier this month (1 March) denied the U.S. authorization to deploy tens of thousands of troops on its soil.

Opening a second front from neighboring Turkey to take the heat off a primary invasion from Kuwait was part of Washington's original war plans.

Confronted with Ankara's refusal, however, the Pentagon had to adjust, diverting dozens of warships anchored off Turkey's Mediterranean coast to the Red Sea and recalling most of the military equipment it had amassed north of the Iraqi border. The 4th Mechanized Infantry Division, which was originally set to enter Iraq from Turkey, is expected to deploy in the Persian Gulf region in the coming days.

Putting a bold face on Turkey's surprise rebuke, U.S. defense officials have been saying that they have alternative northern options, including plans that entail airlifting troops from other countries in the region.

IISS analyst Mitchell said an airborne assault on Iraqi positions theoretically remains on the table, although he believes any tactical aim would be difficult to achieve under present circumstances. "There is a possibility that [an] air-assault division will be used, but that's predicated on all the Iraqi air defenses being almost totally destroyed. We've seen in the past that the Iraqis have substantial quantities of 'triple A' -- anti-aircraft artillery -- and if it is still operational, that would take a heavy toll, and probably a disastrous toll, on any airborne forces or on any attempt to drop airborne troops into that area. So it is problematical. I have my doubts, but it is possible," Mitchell said.

Pressed by the White House, Turkey on 21 March reluctantly opened its airspace to U.S. warplanes and cruise missiles for strikes on Iraq.

Much to Washington's dismay, Ankara has been considering sending a large military force into northern Iraq, officially to stem any influx of refugees and prevent armed militants of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) from crossing the border.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Turkish Army led a successful, though costly, campaign against outlawed PKK militants in southeastern Anatolia. Many separatist fighters have sought refuge in Iraq, prompting the Turkish Army to carry out cross-border forays and maintain hundreds of troops in northern Iraq on a more-or-less permanent basis with the assent of local Kurdish factions.

Ankara fears that, with war in Iraq, PKK fighters might attempt to infiltrate Iraqi Kurdish refugees to reignite separatism in Anatolia. It is also concerned at the prospect of Iraq's Kurdistan gaining official autonomy -- a development it says might politically impact on its 12 million-strong Kurdish minority.

U.S.-Turkish talks on Ankara's planned troop deployment have so far yielded no result, causing worry in Washington, which fears possible clashes between peshmergas and Turkish soldiers if Ankara beefs up its military presence deep into Iraqi territory.

Turkish Army Chief of Staff General Hilmi Ozkok yesterday reiterated that Turkish reinforcements would enter northern Iraq strictly for humanitarian and security purposes and would not fight unless they were fired at. He also pledged that any troop movement would be coordinated with Washington.

The RUSI's Goldsworthy said all the U.S. can hope for is that Ankara does not enter the region before Baghdad is secured and Saddam's regime collapses. Otherwise, she said, Washington's northern plans might be disrupted. "If Turkey pushes its forces more into Kurdish areas in northern Iraq, that could cause problems for [U.S. forces positioned there] because instead of facing forward -- facing southwards and concentrating on Baghdad -- they're going to have to look over their shoulders to see what they've left behind and to put troops in the rear. That would tie up some of the American forces," Goldsworthy said.

Goldsworthy believes Washington would be able to concentrate on coping with any new situation rising from Turkish troop deployment in Kurdish areas only after the fall of the Iraqi capital. "But at the moment," she said, "it would be an unfortunate diversion for the battle for Baghdad."