Special Forces Sweeping South

Special Forces  (Airborne)

31 January 2003

American military and intelligence personnel are gathering in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq as part of the vanguard of an invasion force that will sweep south if President George W Bush orders war.

Gen Richard Myers confirmed their presence, adding that "there are not significant military forces in northern Iraq right now".

Members of Iraqi opposition groups said that three American military cargo planes landed on a runway near the town of Irbil, in north-eastern Iraq.

The personnel, understood to number no more than a few dozen, are said to be US special forces and CIA operatives under the command of the intelligence agency.

In autumn 2001, more than 100 troops from elite units such as Delta Force were seconded to the CIA. Their activities were so clandestine that even the Pentagon was not aware of their exact whereabouts.

Most of northern Iraq is administered by Kurds, who are committed to overthrowing Saddam Hussein and protected by American and British planes patrolling the northern no-fly zone.

Turkey has begun massing troops and ordnance along its border with Iraq, Turkish military sources confirmed yesterday.

The Turkish General Staff said the build-up "should not be seen as an indication that war is imminent nor that Turkey would take part in such a war, but rather as a precautionary measure".

Turkey insists that any military involvement in Iraq will be confined to stemming the sort of influx of millions of Kurdish refugees from Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq that occurred during the 1991 Gulf war.

That would mean deploying thousands of Turkish troops in northern Iraq, who would set up tent cities along the border. The United Nations estimates that 900,000 refugees will attempt to flee to neighbouring countries, most of them to Turkey.

Twenty-seven governors from south and south-east Anatolia have met in Ankara to be briefed over the treatment of the refugees.

The Bush administration is understood to have agreed to a Turkish military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan, but has ruled out allowing them control of oilfields in Kirkuk and Mosul, on which Turkey has historical claims.

In exchange, Turkey has said it will allow a limited number of US troops to gain access to Iraq through Turkish territory.

A final decision is expected when the National Security Council, Turkey's top decision-making body, meets today.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has sought Turkey's permission to upgrade as many as 10 Turkish air bases and two ports for possible use in a war, amid reports that thousands of American troops are heading for Turkey.

Massoud Barzani, the leader of the stronger of the two Kurdish factions controlling northern Iraq, whose fiefdom borders Turkey, has repeatedly voiced strong opposition to the deployment of Turkish troops.

The Iraqi Kurds believe the real reason Turkey wants to send its forces into northern Iraq is to prevent them from forming the semi-independent state they say they want in exchange for their support for US-led action against Baghdad.

By Amberin Zaman and Toby Harnden Copyright Telegraph Group Limited

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