Backed by U.S. Special Forces troops and B-52 bombers, more than 6,000 Kurdish fighters, firing mortars and high-caliber machine guns, swept through valleys and mountain canyons in northern Iraq on Friday, defeating a group of Islamic militants with alleged links to Al Qaeda.
The battle, with U.S. planes leaving contrails overhead and artillery thundering across muddy fields, was a rout of Ansar al Islam. By nightfall, the group's 700 guerrillas had retreated to caves in the snowy mountains along the Iranian border.
About 100 Special Forces troops fought alongside Kurdish soldiers in an attack that began at 8 a.m. and ended at dusk. The Ansar guerrillas abandoned village after village, retreating from their bunkers across a landscape marred by blackened earth and fresh bomb craters. B-52s and F-14 fighter jets circled as U.S. troops on a hill directed them toward bombing targets.
Seventy Ansar guerrillas, including Arabs from Afghanistan and other countries, were killed and 30 were wounded, according to Kurdish military officials in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which governs the eastern part of northern Iraq.
There were no American casualties. Two Kurdish fighters were killed and 20 were wounded.
"We expected stiffer resistance," said a Special Forces commander, speaking on condition of anonymity from his communications post atop Girda Drozna. "But they've been hit pretty hard over the last week" with more than 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
"All villages are controlled by us," said Kosrat Rasoul Ali, a PUK official and a former peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters whose name means "those who face death."
While the U.S. invasion to the south is focused on toppling President Saddam Hussein, the fight in these Kurdish-controlled northern hinterlands seeks to stem terrorism in the Middle East. The Bush administration has alleged that Ansar manufactured chemical agents and has ties to Osama bin Laden.
The PUK has battled Ansar for 19 months but has been unable to defeat the group or break its hold on more than a dozen villages. In a conventional sense, the Kurds won Friday, but with Ansar's terrorist tactics and with most of their forces intact, they can attack again.
On Friday, with the aid of U.S. air power -- including two pilotless drones relaying video of Ansar's rolling positions to the Special Forces command center -- Kurdish fighters moved in a force from the valley below Shinerwe Mountain.
The Kurdish units and the American troops directing them rushed over dirt roads, across sodden fields and up Shram Mountain to the group's stronghold in Biyara.
Special Forces troops and Kurdish fighters had gathered at the military headquarters in the town of Halabja at 5 a.m. Three hours later, with 10,000 Kurdish fighters, including more than 6,000 on the front lines, the attack began.
Six Special Forces mortar crews took positions while U.S. planes bombed the region, sending black smoke into the air as women hanging laundry on the roofs of mud-brick homes pointed to the sky.
Gunfire rattled from empty village to empty village. Ansar teams pulled back, leaving mortar shells and ammunition behind and fleeing bunkers that had been hit in recent days by U.S. airstrikes.
By 2 p.m., Kurdish forces rolled past signs that read, "Ansar al Islam of Kurdistan." Minutes later, Ansar's base in Zardahar fell and Kurdish forces laid siege to Biyara.
Field radios squawked with the message: "Biyara has been taken."
"The Ansar were more than 700 fighters," said Mustafa Said Qadir, commander of the PUK military, surrounded by hundreds of his men as the Islamic guerrillas hurried into the mountains.
"They have 100 casualties today. They have left the corpses of their fighters from Algeria and other Arab countries in the village of Sargat," he said.
'Worth Fighting For'
Watching from the command post on Girda Drozna, Maj. Tim Nye, spokesman for Task Force Viking, said: "What we're bringing to the fight is not so much the manpower but the technology.... You look around here and you say: 'You know, this probably is worth fighting for. It's beautiful.' "
Added the Special Forces commander: "The bulk of the fight today was done by peshmerga. They did most of the heavy lifting. We were here to advise and assist.... They did a great job today."
The Kurdish fighters' small arsenal, which allotted only 150 bullets per man, had been replenished in recent days by U.S. forces.
U.S. intelligence operatives have been in the region for months, but it was only in the last week that U.S. forces began mobilizing in northern Iraq.
"I'm very glad and happy," said PUK Capt. Karim Kamal Agha, standing in Biyara surrounded by his fighters, all smiling and brandishing Kalashnikov assault rifles. "We don't have any terrorism here anymore. Some of them may be hiding in the mountains. We expect to clear them out tomorrow."
Intelligence teams scoured Biyara's buildings and mosque for Ansar documents and records. One Kurdish fighter carried two Korans and a taped-together piece of paper that said the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States were a punishment from God.
"They don't believe in the Prophet," the paper read. "Allah promises in the Koran to destroy them."
Biyara was a dusty scene of chaos and joy as Kurdish fighters carrying rocket-propelled grenades, rifles, bedrolls and suitcases seized the village as Ansar retreated.
Fighters sat in the hillside graveyard smoking cigarettes and laughing in the late-afternoon sun as their commanders called out orders to be vigilant and not to loot. Mortars were fired into the mountains, and Special Forces troops -- one yelling for the road to be cleared so a wounded man could be evacuated -- mingled with their ragged allies.
Insult Added to Injury
In an insult to their enemy, Kurdish fighters tied an Ansar flag on a donkey that wandered the dirt road. Two captured Ansar prisoners were taken away. Near a stream, in a stand of trees, a man lay dead, his arms frozen toward the sky. He had been shot in the chest; his hand was wounded as if he had tried to block the bullet.
As dusk spread, mortars echoed and there was talk of an Ansar counterattack as Special Forces troops left Biyara and headed to the flatlands.
"Let's go, let's go," one U.S. soldier said.
Thousands of refugees had fled in recent days; villages were deserted. Kurdish commanders were on guard for possible Ansar suicide bombings. During the last week, the group detonated a car bomb at a checkpoint, killing five people. Another bombing was averted when the driver of a car loaded with explosives was shot and killed.
Although it had few military victories in the last 19 months, Ansar's terrorist attempts and its assassination of a Kurdish legislator kept the PUK on edge.
The group was weakened this week when another militant Muslim organization, Komaly Islami, surrendered its territory bordering Ansar's after U.S. missiles killed about 40 of its members. Komaly, which has 1,000 fighters, condemned the airstrikes, saying it did not support Ansar's extremism.
Ansar was formed from several militant groups shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. Its aim was to battle the secular PUK for control of villages along the Iranian border, across which most of its arms were smuggled. Ansar became a broader terrorist threat, according to the Bush administration, when it sheltered Al Qaeda fighters escaping Afghanistan and sent some of its guerrillas to Bin Laden's camps.