A weak northern front could lengthen Iraq war

Iraqi units, facing weak US forces in the north, are moving south to Baghdad.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As a group of US Special Forces soldiers worked on their vehicles in the quiet afternoon yesterday, one of their colleagues acknowledged the absence of a busy schedule. "We're just enjoying the sunshine," he said.

This dusty little collection of crumbling cement houses, built near a shrine to a Sufi holy man, is set in rolling green hills in northern Iraq that by now might have seen tens of thousands of US soldiers and columns of heavy armor rolling through them, heading for the Iraqi capital.

Instead, the hills are empty save for a few shepherds tending their flocks. As the battle for Baghdad gets under way 250 miles to the south, the northern arm of a planned pincer movement has failed to materialize, complicating and probably prolonging the final US assault on Saddam Hussein's strongest military units.

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"The lack of a northern front means the fight for Baghdad could be more intense and bloody than anyone originally planned," says Charles Peña, a military analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington. "It increases the risk of higher casualties and stretching the war out longer than anyone wants."

The Kurdish pesh merga militia, US allies who occupied this former Iraqi military outpost after Iraqi troops abandoned it some time in the past few weeks, are keen to go farther. In their sights they have the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, where they say Kurdish residents are ready to rise up in support of an assault.

"We are very eager to attack Kirkuk," says Neriman Rabati, the commander of the 150 pesh merga here. But he and his colleagues are obeying US orders to hold back, he adds.

The northern front, involving 60,000 men of the 4th Mechanized Infantry Division - the US Army's most modern armored unit - had been an important element in Gen. Tommy Franks's initial war plan.

He was thwarted, however, by the Turkish parliament's refusal to allow US forces to pass through Turkey en route to northern Iraq, in the face of overwhelming opposition to the war by ordinary Turks.

At the time, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the Pentagon could find "workarounds" to cope with the setback, and President Bush insisted that the reversal would mean no extra risks for American troops.

"It is not hard to see how wrong that assessment was," says Sam Gardiner, a retired US Air Force colonel who has taught at the National Defense University in Washington. "Imagine the situation if the 4th Infantry Division were now at Tikrit," a stronghold of Saddam Hussein's north of Baghdad, "or even at the northern edge of the suburbs of Baghdad."

The absence from the fight of the 4th Infantry Division - currently on its way with its equipment by sea around the Arabian Peninsula to Kuwait, and not expected to join the fray for another two or three weeks - "cut off about 25 or 30 percent" of US military might, says Charles Heyman, an analyst with Jane's Land Armies.

"The northern option has changed shape," US Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged on yesterday during a visit to Turkey. "We are just now executing that part of the campaign in a different way than had originally been planned. But our planning is flexible and we will respond to events as they occur."

As Iraqi troops have fallen back under airstrikes, Kurdish militiamen and a few US Special Forces troops have advanced about 12 miles beyond the line that used to demarcate territory under Mr. Hussein's control from the autonomous Kurdish region protected by a US and British-enforced no-fly zone since the first Gulf War.

But apart from coalition bombing raids on Kirkuk and Mosul, and on Iraqi troop concentrations in the north, that is about all that has happened on the northern front.

About 1,000 paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Division dropped into Kurdish-held areas last week, and additional arrivals since then may have brought the number of uniformed US troops to between 2,000 and 3,000 according to Kurdish officials. But their main task appears to be to defuse tensions between Kurds and their longtime enemies, the Turks.

"These forces, along with large numbers of Special Operations troops, have [the goal of] preventing the rekindling of historic feuding which we've seen in years past between the Turks and the Kurds," General Franks said over the weekend.

Washington is anxious to rein in Kurdish ambitions to capture Kirkuk, which Ankara has said it would not accept.

A major Kurdish advance could well provoke the Turks into sending troops that they have massed on their southern border into northern Iraq, sparking a war within a war.

Mr. Powell said he had agreed with Ankara that "we have the situation under control, and there is no need at the moment for any movement of Turkish troops across the border."

US military planners also seem to have hoped that the presence of US troops in northern Iraq might pose enough appearance of a threat to keep elite Iraqi Republican Guard divisions in place in the north, preventing them from reinforcing their comrades to the south of Baghdad.

That has not happened. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday that the Adnan Republican Guard division was moving south from Tikrit, and that two thirds of the Nebuchadnezzar Division had left Kirkuk to join the defense of Baghdad.

Though US officials say airstrikes could pulverize such forces when they are on the move, independent analysts say they could well survive to reach Baghdad.

In Kosovo, Mr. Heyman recalls, Serbian armor "moved around quite happily under intense aerial bombardment for 60 days," moving at dusk and dawn to evade timely detection and attack. Of the 256 main battle tanks that the Serbian army deployed in Kosovo, only eight were destroyed, he points out.

The Republican Guard units that do reach Baghdad will strengthen those already to the south of the city, bearing the brunt of the US assault.

"The lack of a northern front prolongs the war because it is taking longer to build the forces necessary to win, and because Saddam can with greater assurance reposition his Republican Guard to oppose the coalition force," says Daniel Smith, a retired US Army colonel.

"Prolonging the war," he warns, "brings ... more deaths, more destruction, potentially more disaffection among ordinary Iraqis towards American and British forces, more anger on the Arab street and more recruits for terrorism."

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