Special Forces Fight Iraqis in North
Special Forces (Airborne)
April 1, 2003 · Last updated Tuesday, 12:06 p.m. PT
IRBIL, Iraq -- The Iraqi soldier leaned against his truck, kicking the mud from his boots and enjoying a cigarette.
It would be his last.
Across the valley in northern Iraq, a U.S. Special Forces team watched him through binoculars and summoned a laser-guided airstrike. The soldier disappeared in a cloud of black smoke; when it cleared, only the burned-out hulk of his truck remained.
Upon a crest, overlooking the dug-in Iraqi army site, was the mismatched group behind the successful strike: an eight-man team with the capacity to summon state-of-the-art weaponry, and about 50 Kurdish militiamen, some carrying little more than a Kalashnikov rifle.
While the U.S. group wore camouflage, the Kurds sported more colorful gear - one stood out in a red ski jacket and Sergio Valente boots. The Kurdish peshmergas - it translates as "those who face death" - provided the U.S. force with security, while patrolling nearby villages and setting up ambushes against Iraqi soldiers.
The U.S. soldiers provided training for the peshmerga, who have been fighting Saddam Hussein's soldiers for control of a ridge less than a mile away.
"In a good way, this is like another Vietnam," said an American sergeant major from Salem, N.H., praising the idea of training local troops to fight while ignoring the outcome of that conflict.
Not everyone echoed his opinion.
"The peshmerga seem dedicated," said a 34-year-old Green Beret team leader from Montana. "But after we give them all of these deadly skills, we just don't know which side of the wire they will be on in 10 years.
"We might come back in five years and he's on the side of some despot, killing people in astonishing numbers."
Most of the Special Forces fighters did not want to be identified by name because of the nature of their sometimes covert missions and the possibility of retribution.
The Kurdish militiamen have fought a generations-old ethnic struggle for control of the strategic border region. The Iraqi Kurdish region adjoins others in Iran, Turkey and Syria.
During the 1980s, Kurds in Turkey's southeast fought a war for autonomy that left 30,000 people dead. The Iraqi Kurds were oppressed by Baghdad; in the 1991 Gulf War, they turned against Saddam. His regime killed thousands, bombing major cities and razing villages and towns throughout northern Iraq.
The region has achieved stability under the recent protection of U.S-British air patrols. Turkey fears that the Iraqi Kurds will try to claim independence when Saddam is ousted, encouraging similar hopes in Turkey's Kurdish minority and threatening any plan to integrate the northern Kurdish region into a post-Saddam government.
A village near the Special Forces position offered an example of the fluidity of local ethnic allegiances.
During the day, men from Saddam's army visit the tea houses and, as Middle Eastern men commonly do, walk down main streets holding hands. But at night, the peshmerga return to the village to sleep with their families, and their comrades set up roadblocks to keep government troops out.
"The ethnic and religious complexities and rivalries are massive here," said Lt. Col. Dave Johnson, a Special Forces strategic planner for northern Iran. "If we get this wrong we're only creating more terrorists."
At the Special Forces camp overlooking the village, they're hoping to get it right. The fighting positions of this small detachment are ringed with machine guns, high-powered binoculars and the devices used to alert war planes ranging in size and power from the Navy's F-18 and F-14 fighter jets to the Air Force's B-1 and B-52 bombers.
All night long, they bomb Saddam's ridge.
On Sunday night a B-52 carpet-bombed a half-mile long trenchline and command post with 27 bombs weighing 750 pounds each. The explosions, about four miles away, turned the night sky bright enough to read by.
"I wish they would surrender," said the detachment's commander, a 1996 West Point graduate. "But I know they can't. If you knew that as soon as you started down the hill, your boss would fire a round into the back of your head, would you surrender?"
The commander fears that the Iraqi forces might move to occupy the village, using it as a base to launch mortars and artillery fire against the U.S. forces. "It would be impossible for us to return fire on them, because we might kill civilians, or blow up a hospital, or a school or a mosque," he said.
By JONATHAN EWING ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER