Restless Kurds ready for war in the north
CHAMCHAMAL, Iraq, March 26 – It was an almost surreal experience. The Kurdish commander of this front-line town, sitting in his fortified office only 500 yards from Iraqi army positions, draped an American flag over his back and bellowed, “I am superman!”The commander, whose reputation would suffer if I used his name, was enjoying a particularly heady moment as news reached him that American C-130 transport planes were landing 30 miles away and disgorging dozens of U.S. special forces, along with a retinue of gear, including 4-wheel-drive vehicles, communications equipment and an arsenal of weapons. The American invasion of northern Iraq was at hand.Many special forces are basing in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, from where they will use helicopters to jump over into territory held by forces loyal to Saddam Hussein. There they will prepare sites for future use by U.S. airborne troops, likely from the 82nd or 173rd Airborne Divisions, which will lead the battle for Iraq’s north.For Iraq’s minority Kurds, oppressed for decades by Saddam’s regime, the arrival of Americans couldn’t come a moment too soon. Privately, Kurdish commanders have been complaining to me that the invasion is already late. The Kurds fear that the stiffer-than-expected Iraqi resistance to American forces in southern Iraq, and a lighter bombing campaign in the north, will galvanize Saddam’s troops here.The Kurds, however, may continue to be disappointed. There are indications that the Pentagon will wait until U.S. troops have thrown a noose around Baghdad before tackling the north. If Baghdad falls, the thinking goes, so will several key northern cities, like oil-rich Kirkuk and Mosul. Facing strong opposition in the south, and uncertain future battles along the road to the Iraqi capital, U.S. commanders might be reluctant to expend reserve U.S. divisions in the north until absolutely necessary.The U.S. invasion of the north will also be far riskier than the southern attack. An airborne operation is more vulnerable, and lighter armed, than the rolling land invasion the Pentagon was tentatively planning for until Turkey refused access across its border with Iraq.In several conversations with Kurdish commanders and politicians, I was told that there is growing frustration with the slow pace of U.S. battle plans in northern Iraq. Hedging their bets, which until now had all been placed on U.S. military support, Kurdish leaders are keeping their options open. That means continuing to use the Kurdish underground in places like Kirkuk to chisel away at Saddam’s power. Instead of waiting for American troops to parachute into Kirkuk, the Kurds may try to spark an uprising, drawing inspiration from reports of similar anti-Saddam upheaval by Shia Muslims in the southern city of Basra.In Chamchamal, which sits on the front line between Kurdish forces and Saddam’s troops, I spoke to a local tribal leader about how the Kurdish underground works. He said he has used covert channels to contact a high-ranking member of Saddam’s regional government in Kirkuk, located 20 miles west of here. As a result, the Iraqi had asked for a guarantee of his safety if he helps turn Kirkuk over to U.S. or Kurdish control, whichever comes first. In the event of the city’s collapse, Kurdish underground forces will vouch for the man and keep his family safe, the tribal leader told me.The tribal chief preferred not to be named, due to the sensitive nature of his talks with the Iraqi side. As the U.S. presses its campaign toward Baghdad, he said, there are more and more side deals being cut. And in wartime such dealing knows no front line.Preston Mendenhall, who grew up in Aspen, is MSNBC.com’s international editor. He is covering the war from northern Iraq and has agreed to send us twice-weekly dispatches about his experiences.
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