Kurdish fighters ready to link with US and challenge Iraq

1,000 US troops arrived by air in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq Wednesday night.

US and British forces may be disappointed with their welcome in the rest of Iraq, but the US paratroopers who have dropped into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq are surrounded by a population happy to see them.

The 1,000 members of the US 173rd Airborne Brigade who arrived at an airstrip here Wednesday night are part of a widening "northern front" that may soon complement the US-led advance in southern and central Iraq.

Until now, the US presence in the Kurdish zone has consisted primarily of scores of Special Forces and intelligence operatives who have kept their activities secret and shirked media attention. The more-or-less open presence of the paratroopers seems to indicate that the US will assemble at least a limited invasion force to enter the parts of Iraq controlled by President Saddam Hussein.

Thursday, scattered groups of paratroopers were visible on the Harir airstrip, as were two helicopters. US and Kurdish troops maintained protective positions in the lush, muddy fields that surround the airstrip.

In recent days, the US also has been bombing Iraqi emplacements along the dividing line that separates Kurdish- and Hussein-controlled Iraq, which also suggest that preparations are under way for forces to cross those lines. Following an Iraqi pullback Thursday from positions near Chamchamal, a Kurdish town along the dividing line, civilians overran the checkpoint on the Iraqi government side.

"There is a front," says Hoshyar Zebari, a top official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, "although you don't see it."

In the town of Harir, set in the hills above the airstrip where the paratroopers landed, residents are delighted to welcome the US troops. "From the [1991 Kurdish] uprising until now we have waited for them to come," says Taha Hussein Hamadameen, who owns a teashop in Harir. "They come to free us from this oppression," he says, referring to Hussein's regime.

A former Kurdish militia member, or pesh merga, Mr. Hamadameen is ready to come out of retirement. "If they distribute rifles, we are ready to go to the front ... we will go in front of them."

Kurdish officials say US troops and pesh merga are already operating together and suggest that US-Kurdish military cooperation will be replicated on a broader scale as the northern front gains momentum.

Mr. Zebari declines to be specific about the nature or scale of such cooperation, but he calls the northern front a "joint venture."

US war planners, Kurdish officials say, had envisioned a "pure" invasion in the north, meaning that the US would not rely on local forces as they did in Afghanistan. But Turkey's refusal to sanction the passage of US troops and equipment across its territory seems to have provided an opportunity for the Kurds to exploit.

Because the US is now forced to airlift troops and equipment into northern Iraq, instead of driving them through Turkey, the Kurdish militiamen are now positioning themselves to augment US forces.

As Faraidoon Khorshid, a cosmetics store owner in Harir, puts it: "Any army has to have guides."

The Kurds have tens of thousands of men under arms - some estimates are as high as 70,000 fighters - who are known mainly for their skill in repelling attacks and waging guerrilla war from the mountains.

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