31 January 2003
Small numbers working with CIA in north, Pentagon says.
WASHINGTON Small numbers of U.S. military forces are now operating in northern Iraq, according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Over the past several weeks, Special Operations Forces have entered the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq to work with teams of Central Intelligence Agency operatives who are organizing Kurdish opposition groups, military officials said.
One Pentagon official said that the numbers were "very small," probably less than two dozen. But the importance of the troops' deployment lies less in their numbers than in their presence, which represents a further escalation in the buildup of American forces in the region.
It has been known for months that CIA operatives have been in northern Iraq, which is controlled by the two main Kurdish groups under the protection of the United States and Britain, which maintain a "no-flight" zone over the area.
The U.S. intelligence agents have been trying to organize Kurdish guerrillas who could act as guides, interpreters or scouts for American-led forces in any northern offensive.
There have also been reports that CIA operatives are working in other parts of Iraq, in preparation for a possible war.
But until Wednesday, military officials have refused to comment publicly on periodic reports of U.S. troops slipping in and out of the area.
When asked about the matter at a Pentagon news conference, General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "I don't think we want to get into where our forces are right now, but there are not significant military forces in northern Iraq right now."
While some military officials said that the remarks of Myers were inadvertent, other officials said they were part of the Bush administration's continuing effort to increase pressure on Saddam Hussein to comply with the UN demand to disarm.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, elaborating on a possible American role in arranging for exile for Saddam, said Wednesday that the United States "would, I'm sure, try to help find a place" for Saddam, his family and other Iraqi leaders if they chose flight instead of war.
Later, the State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said that exile was simply "one of those ideas that's floating out there" and not a "serious policy" or something that had "been approached with any serious discussion."
An Iraqi opposition official said that three U.S. aircraft landed earlier this week in northern Iraq at Hurrayah airfield, near Shaklawa, on a major road from Iran into Iraq. The official said that people had been seen unloading containers and cargo, and appeared to be setting up a base.
Myers said he was not aware of the report, adding, "I'm not going to go into any more detail on that." In another sign of U.S. preparations for war, the Coast Guard said that it was sending eight high-speed cutters and 600 personnel to the Gulf region in the service's first combat deployment since the Vietnam War.
The ships' mission will be to protect "high-value targets" such as navy ships, oil tankers and military command vessels, as well as to prevent suicide bomb attacks, said Commander Jim McPherson, a Coast Guard spokesman. The cutters carry .50-caliber machine guns and 20mm guns.
Four of the 110-foot (34-meter), high-speed vessels, which carry 15 crewmen, left Norfolk, Virginia, on Wednesday, bound for the Gulf.
The other four ships, which will leave Norfolk in a few days, will patrol Turkish waters near ports that American military cargo ships will use if basing arrangements can be worked out with Turkey.
Eric Schmitt NYT Friday, January 31, 2003 © 2003
the International Herald Tribune
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