Kurds within two miles of Kirkuk as Iraqis retreat

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The Independent Online

Kurdish irregulars advanced past abandoned Iraqi bunkers to within two miles of the oil city of Kirkuk yesterday as the Iraqi army retreated into the city in their first withdrawal on the northern front.

Kurdish irregulars advanced past abandoned Iraqi bunkers to within two miles of the oil city of Kirkuk yesterday as the Iraqi army retreated into the city in their first withdrawal on the northern front.

"They have pulled back because of the air raids so they will be in populated places where the planes cannot be used," said Shamal Ali, a Kurdish peshmerga manning a light machine-gun on top of a pick-up truck.

There were only a few hundred lightly armed and raggedly dressed peshmerga on the road to Kirkuk yesterday, looking surprised and a little alarmed at how close to the city they had come. The retreat is evidently part of Iraq's strategy of not trying to hold fixed positions out in the country vulnerable to air strikes.

The Iraqi retreat was well organised, with the former headquarters of the 8th Infantry Brigade in the village of Karahanjir stripped bare, to the disappointment of Kurds looking for loot. The only weapon left behind was an ancient artillery piece that looked as if it was used only for ceremonial occasions.

In one large room in the headquarters the Iraqis had left behind a large plaster model of their positions, with bunkers on the bare hilltops and pieces of winding white string showing the trenches. In the commander's office, there was a copy of al-Qadisiya dated 25 March, showing communications were good enough for daily newspapers from Baghdad until recently.

For 12 years, the Kurds have faced an Iraqi front line on a ridge of hills overlooking the town of Chachamal. Yesterday local people were looting even steel bars and window frames. One had to be satisfied with a small tree he was dragging to his home.

Kurdish commanders played down the extent of their advance, evidently frightened this could lead to Turkish intervention. A few kilometres down the road to Kirkuk, Mam Rostam, a leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, was saying: "None of our official forces have gone beyond this point. Anybody further down the road are irregular peshmerga, they don't belong to us. We are definitely not on the edge of Kirkuk."

As we drove further down the road, this turned out to be untrue. The Kurds are within sight of Kirkuk and its oilfields, though the latter are shrouded in smoke from the bombing. They could see the larger buildings, including the Saddam hospital in the distance. Gazi Khalid, a peshmerga officer, said: "I got within two kilometres of the city and I felt frustrated because I come from there and I have not been able to go back for 15 years."

In the past four days, the US has been bombing the Iraqi front line intensely, particularly in the Chamchamal area. But the bombers had left the main road alone, presumably because America or its Kurdish allies want to capture it to use themselves.

The military headquarters at Karahanjir also was not hit. It is in the middle of a large Kurdish village from which the Kurds were forced to flee in 1991, abandoning their neat white houses, many of which are now roofless.

It is clear from the light forces on the road that the Kurds have not started to make their push on Kirkuk, a province where they were the majority until they were expelled or forced to flee by Saddam Hussein.

They have promised America, under whose command they now claim to be, that neither the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan nor the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the two dominant Kurdish parties, will take Kirkuk city, only targets in the countryside. Judging by yesterday's redeployment of the Iraqi forces, if they choose to make a stand, it will be in the houses and streets of Kirkuk.

We asked a peshmerga patrol how many Kurdish troops were between us and Kirkuk. They said they were the most forward Kurdish unit and, as we heard the sound of shell-fire they said they were going back to base. They had evidently realised, as we had, that the Iraqi army could easily reverse its retreat and brush aside Kurdish resistance.