In North, Iraq Moves Unimpeded

Times Staff Writer

By failing to launch a ground offensive in northern Iraq, the U.S. military has given Iraq's army the precious gift of time.

On a barren ridge overlooking this almost deserted village, Iraqi troops move unhindered, digging deeper trenches, expanding minefields and wiring explosives to highway bridges leading to nearby Mosul, the country's third-largest city.

Kurdish guerrillas and command leaders say Iraqi reinforcements in recent days have brought new commanders, including elements of the Republican Guard, to back up -- and intimidate -- demoralized army conscripts.

Groups of paramilitary fighters already have set up checkpoints in the city to keep frightened residents or dispirited soldiers from fleeing.

The buildup of the Iraqi forces has heightened anxieties of Kurds, who say the U.S. is losing a crucial moment to take the offensive in the north. And with each passing day without a large-scale attack, Kurds worry that when Saddam Hussein's regime finally collapses, they will suffer the wrath of his last act of revenge at the hands of his loyalists.

"They are groups that have committed several crimes, so their destiny is linked to Saddam's destiny," said an intelligence officer in Kalak with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controls the western half of the autonomous Kurd enclave in northern Iraq. "That's why they might do something" as their mentor loses his iron grip on power.

Senior U.S. defense officials said Tuesday that plans to advance ground forces from northern Iraq toward Baghdad are "not dead," even though the armored division that they had counted on being well established there by now has yet to leave its U.S. base.

In fact, Pentagon strategists had hoped to squeeze the Iraqi military in a quickly closing armored vice by attacking from the north with about 60,000 troops while the main invasion force struck from the south. But a week into the war, the northern front still hasn't opened because Turkey refused to allow U.S. troops to move through its territory into northern Iraq. The absence of ground forces in the north has contributed to a larger debate in the Pentagon about whether the U.S. has committed enough troops to the war.

"With or without Turkey, we're going to have a northern option," a U.S. Defense Department official said Tuesday. "Would we have liked to have it up there from Day One? Sure, we would have liked to have had that option."

Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas, who seized large swaths of northern Iraq in 1991 only to lose much of their gains in a ruthless counteroffensive, are eager to fight. But many believe Washington is restraining them to mollify the Turks, who don't want oil-rich areas such as Kirkuk to fall under Kurdish control.

U.S. warplanes continue to bomb targets in and around Mosul and Kirkuk, where hundreds of thousands of minority Kurds are trapped because Iraqi authorities have closed the main escape routes. But the failure to secure Turkish help in deploying the 4th Infantry Division has made it difficult, if not impossible, for the U.S. to secure valuable oil fields against possible sabotage by Hussein's troops.

"That's still a question of whether we'll be able to get to them in time to prevent an ecological or financial disaster in the future," said a Pentagon official.

At the moment, the U.S. has only several hundred special operations troops in northern Iraq. Although they are working closely with Kurdish fighters there, their biggest joint operation so far has been airstrikes and preparation for a ground assault against Ansar aI Islam, a small militia that is suspected of having ties to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda.

For Kurds, the U.S.-led coalition's limited strikes against Iraqi forces in the north raise the specter of Kosovo, where, despite 78 days of intense NATO bombing, Serbian paramilitary units, police and soldiers raped, murdered, looted and burned at will.

While Iraqi Kurds wait for the ground war to come, they wonder whether Hussein has a similar horror in store for them.

Kurds already have suffered under the long rule of Hussein, who massacred several thousand of them with chemical weapons, expelled hundreds of thousands more from their homes and blasted whole villages to rubble. In 1988 alone, during Hussein's Anfal offensive, "an estimated 100,000 Kurdish men, women and children were systematically murdered," Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a recent report.

The report, published this month before the war in Iraq began, warned that competing ethnic claims to Kirkuk -- by Kurds, Turkmens, Assyrians and Arabs -- make the city a dangerous caldron. Washington should "urgently put U.S. forces in northern Iraq to protect the Kurds against Iraqi forces and to provide a buffer between Turkish forces and Iraqi Kurdish militias," the report said.

Yet thus far, the bombing of Iraqi front-line positions in the north that began Sunday has been limited to a few places along a roughly 500-mile front that zigs and zags from the Iranian border in the southeast to Syria in the northwest.

The forward line of Iraqi forces is actually at least seven front lines, according to a Kurdish intelligence officer, who spoke only on the condition he not be identified. He estimated that Iraq's main regular army force has no more than 50,000 fighters, although the figure was impossible to verify.

Still, "their morale is what matters. And right now it is zero," said the intelligence officer, a veteran of the 1991 battles in Mosul and Kirkuk. "I don't know why the U.S. planes are not bombing all of these front lines. If the Iraqi soldiers see this happen, they will surrender."

But now, he said, a ground offensive in Mosul would face Hussein's shock troops that won't come from the regular army ranks but from groups such as his fanatically loyal Fedayeen Saddam, whose paramilitary fighters are slowing the U.S. advance from the south and inflicting casualties.

U.S. troops in the north also may have to battle members of the Al Quds Army, which Hussein created for what he called the liberation of Jerusalem from Israeli rule. There's also Moujahedeen Khalq, or National Council of Resistance, a militia that Hussein formed and armed to launch cross-border attacks against Iran's Islamic Revolutionary government.

"According to the information we received, a group of the Moujahedeen Khalq came into Mosul with the 5th Brigade about a month ago," the intelligence officer said.

"They were taken to an area of Mosul called Salamya," he said, referring to a large military camp for the Iraqi brigade. "They will fight to the death because their destiny is directly related to that of Saddam. They have nowhere else to go."

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Times staff writer Esther Schrader in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday March 28, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction Moujahedeen Khalq -- An article in Wednesday's Section A on events in northern Iraq stated that the militant Iranian opposition force Moujahedeen Khalq was founded by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In fact, the group, which the Bush administration has declared to be a terrorist organization, has been given shelter and support by Baghdad but was founded by Iranian exiles.
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