The north: Kurds wait nervously as Iraqis retreat

Saddam's troops complete orderly withdrawal to Kirkuk after heavy bombing
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The Independent Online

The peshmerga patrol was excited and a little edgy as it returned from the outskirts of Kirkuk, a city the Kurdish leaders would like to capture if doing so did not lead to a Turkish invasion.

The peshmerga patrol was excited and a little edgy as it returned from the outskirts of Kirkuk, a city the Kurdish leaders would like to capture if doing so did not lead to a Turkish invasion.

The Iraqi army had just withdrawn into the city from its foxholes and bunkers on the green ridge overlooking the smugglers' town of Chamchamal after four days of heavy bombing by the US.

It was a very orderly retreat, in keeping with the Iraqi strategy of holding the cities but not the countryside, where there is no cover from US aircraft. As night fell, the Iraqi army even fired six shells into Chamchamal, which showed they were still a force to be feared.

In the white painted Iraqi army barracks at Qarah Anjir, located in a village of roofless houses from which Kurds were forced to flee 12 years ago, almost nothing had been left behind, to the frustration of local looters. A few old documents had been discarded, including a pink exercise book which had been used to record salaries paid to the officers and men of the 8th Infantry Brigade. The retreat, the first along the long frontline between the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq and the Iraqi army, had been meticulously prepared.

In the barracks square there were still little notices indicating who had a right to parking places. On the walls of the barracks, written in white on a blue background, were faded slogans to inspire the troops. "On the day of victory God wants to win honour and glory", read one. On another wall was a list of all 33 countries that had participated in the first Gulf War against Iraq in 1991.

Some peshmerga had found black gas masks in the bunkers and were waving them in a friendly fashion. Jawdad Sharif said: "This proves that Saddam was going to use chemical weapons."

A sign in Qarah Anjir barracks saying "Chemical unit No 8" did not prove much, as it could have been for defence against chemical attack. If it was for offensive purposes, it would have been unlikely to have advertised its presence.

The forward patrols of irregular peshmerga who had pushed so close to Kirkuk were nervous because they admitted they had done nothing to force the Iraqi army to retreat. There was no reason, aside from US air power, why Iraq's army should not punch straight back up the road to Chamchamal, brushing aside the peshmerga with their AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Despite the Kurdish advance, it will be some time before Saddam Hussein faces a real northern front. A thousand US paratroopers had landed early on Thursday morning at the airstrip at Harir and were digging dugouts in the muddy fields. But it may be a week before the whole of the 173rd Airborne Brigade will be deployed in the north.

Their first target may not even be Kirkuk. The US already has forces in western Iraq at the airfields of H3 and H4, so named because they are settlements on the old pipeline. It would be easier for the US to attack Mosul – where there are few Iraqi frontline units – from the west, while Kurdish forces, along with US soldiers just parachuted in, attack it from the north. But, despite the well-organised Iraqi retreat from Chamchamal, it may not all be easy going.

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