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A weak northern front could lengthen Iraq war

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

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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.

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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."