U.S. in slow northern Iraq buildup

By NICHOLAS M. HORROCK  |  March 24, 2003 at 4:04 PM
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ANKARA, Turkey, March 24 (UPI) -- The United States has begun a build-up of its forces in Northern Iraq but is hampered in speed and firepower because there are only two recently upgraded airfields that can handle troop carriers, the top Kurdistan Democratic Party representative in Turkey told United Press International on Monday.

The mission of this force will be to try to tie down some 10 divisions of Iraqi troops with the aid of the Kurdish militia, Safeen M. Dizayee told UPI in an interview.

"This was the original mission of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division," in a battle plan scotched on March 1 when the Turkish Parliament voted to bar the 62,000-strong American contingent with tanks and heavy equipment Washington wanted to put on the ground.

Since the new force, airborne units, can only be delivered by C-130 aircraft, the big M1A1 tanks and heavy artillery of the 4th will not be available.

The "coalition in Northern Iraq" as Safeen referred to it, will be comprised of these Army paratroopers and the 50,000-man U.S.-trained Kurdish militia, which faces the Iraqis along a twisting border that runs from Syria on the east to Iran on the west.

Safeen declined to estimate how many Americans will arrive. For some time it has been speculated that elements of the 82nd Airborne or the 101st would be heading up there.

According to one military analyst, there are perhaps 75,000 Iraqi troops of varying levels of discipline and skill along this line, including one Republican Guard division and several well-trained armored and mechanized divisions.

He said he learned this week that one division, the Iraqis 3rd Armored, might have been transferred south to Ramadi, west of Baghdad, as coalition forces drew closer to the Iraqi capital.

The ability of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to use that northern force as a reserve was what the whole northern front was planned to prevent, Safeen said. But he said capturing key locations in the north would have a major psychological effect on the defenders of Baghdad.

"To look north and know they are surrounded," he said.

Other things make the region important to the Iraqis leaders and army. Safeen said key Sunni Muslim Army officers are from Mosul and it was always a stronghold of the Baath political party, which has been the heart of Saddam's power.

Safeen said Kurdish operatives have also been working hard to get "defections and surrenders" among the Iraqi forces, but he declined to detail the success. Many Kurds once lived in Mosul and Kirkuk and were driven out by Saddam so he could put Arabs in their homes.

Another key target for attack will be Kirkuk, Safeen said, which is not only a wealthy oil refinery center but has a large military base and a central intelligence facility that has been a key instrument of Saddam's secret police operation.

It isn't clear whether the northern troops have been infiltrated by Saddam's politically faithful fedayeen, but CNN and British Broadcast Corp. television outposts with Kurdish forces reveal what appear to be more military preparations along the front line.

U.S. special forces are already leading an attack of Kurdish fighters against the mountain villages of an Iraq supported group connected with ties to the al-Qaida terror organization near the Iranian border, but Safeen thought it would wind down before attacks could begin against Iraq.

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