A metal tag was attached to each color-coded wire of a freshly cut communications cable that lay half buried outside a cinder-block hut. The labels named the eventual destination of each wire: observer unit, brigade colonel, control unit, artillery.
This was part of the debris left by Iraqi troops who overnight withdrew from their front-line positions 22 miles south of Irbil, the largest city in the Kurdish-controlled zone of northern Iraq.
The pullback appeared orderly. This hut and several nearby held scattered pieces of paper, barbed wire, corrugated roofing and stray dogs.
The only sign of forgetfulness was a collection of three metal helmets and a gas mask found nearby. Another hut, decorated with an unweeded flower bed out front, seemed to have been freshly swept. A dustpan leaned against the wall.
Front-line Iraqi forces have made what appear to be tactical withdrawals at several points on the long frontier that separates them from the Kurdish militias. The Iraqis abandoned only their most vulnerable positions and checkpoints on the rolling plain. About two miles south, black-clad Iraqi sentinels guarded a bridge at the little town of Altun Kupri. Behind and above on a ridge, soldiers still manned cube-like bunkers at intervals of about 200 yards.
The Iraqis have given up little on the road to the oil hub of Kirkuk, 25 miles due south. Kurdish officials say the Iraqis are merely tightening defenses closer to the city. To the east, the Iraqis retreated 12 miles to position themselves about 10 miles from Kirkuk.
Early this morning, small groups of Kurdish militiamen in white Datsun pickup trucks moved along back roads to various trenches and bunkers to inspect, scavenge material and gather any useful information. At one place, they found two notes: one ordering a communications blackout on Mondays and Thursdays, another requesting repair of a telephone.
There was no obvious sign that the Kurdish fighters would advance soon, although local commanders huddled in a meeting in a small town 10 miles north. The fighters simply took an Iraqi checkpoint near here, in effect moving their area of control only 21/2 miles south. The Kurds defend an autonomous northern zone, which had been under the protection of U.S. and British warplanes since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Kirkuk was once a tantalizing target for U.S. planners. It lies about 150 miles from Baghdad, roughly half the distance from Basra to Baghdad. It sits close to oil fields, and protection of petroleum reserves was one of the primary objectives of the war's early days. But the northern front did not materialize because the Bush administration failed to persuade Turkey to let U.S. forces use its territory as a staging area.
The northern front has changed little during the first 11 days of war. U.S. jets have bombed positions behind the ridge, reportedly hitting artillery positions, military barracks and buildings, and camps such as this. The jets have also struck targets in and around Mosul, the other major city in the region, which lies to the northwest of here.
Late in the afternoon, several explosions were heard from the direction of Kirkuk, apparently from jet bombers that could be heard overhead in Kurdish territory.
But so far there have been no strikes against the first line of defense, and Kurdish militia members wonder why. "If they hit the ridge, the Iraqis would leave and we will move in," said Hedar Suwara, a member of the militia group from Irbil. "We won't do anything until then."
An airdrop of 1,000 U.S. paratroops into the Kurdish area has created no great sense of anticipation. "It's the planes that we see doing something. A lot of planes, not many soldiers," said Mohamed Ali, another young fighter. The Americans have been seen driving around in Humvees and big civilian jeeps 50 miles northeast of here, taking up residence in mountain fortresses and at the headquarters of Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. U.S. officials have indicated that the troops are meant to keep Turkey and the Kurds from feuding -- the Turks have threatened to invade if the Kurds try to set up an independent state. The KDP administers this part of the autonomous zone, which has been free of central government control for 12 years.
Kurdish leaders say they will only take offensive action in agreement with the Americans. Today, the Kurdish militias moved cautiously. One group of sappers used short skewers to pierce the ground alongside the Irbil-Kirkuk road and probe for mines. A few feet away lay 60 black antipersonnel mines they had discovered, each about the size of jumbo tuna fish cans. A separate phalanx of fighters walked down the road scanning the pavement for other explosives.
In early afternoon, Iraqis somewhere near Altun Kupri fired four mortars at a car carrying reporters down the main road. The projectiles exploded harmlessly on the green, abandoned fields.
The Kurds express eagerness to move forward. The government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein expelled tens of thousands of Kurds from Kirkuk and surrounding villages during three decades of trying to suppress northern revolts. In 1987, during a campaign to crush Kurdish rebels, Iraqi troops flattened this village, the point of the farthest advance of the Kurds. Only a Muslim cemetery's double-tombstone graves suggest that a rural hamlet once existed.
"My home is just over the ridge," said Hamid Jamil, an officer of the Irbil forces. "They put Arabs from Mosul there. I will be back soon." But first, the ridge must be cleared and then the militia must receive "orders from our leadership," he said.
A tour of the bunkers produced a few traces of life at the Iraqi front. The presence of the communications cable confirms Kurdish accounts that Iraqi troops avoid using radios, which can be intercepted, and instead employ land lines to contact each other. The cable was buried just below the sandy ground. A recent copy of the army newspaper Al-Qadissiya was strewn around one hut. The edition featured news on Swedish weapons and a poem called "Iraq Forever," predicting the enemy will tire and Saddam Hussein will survive.
In the bunker with the flower bed, messages on a bulletin board contained two injunctions: "Honesty is the best policy" and "Forgiveness is the best revenge."
The gas mask seemed antique, its screw-on filter dented and rusty. The presence of gas masks found here and at positions to the east suggested to U.S. officials that the Iraqis themselves expected the use of chemical weapons. Reporters saw a building east of Kirkuk with a large inscription on the front identifying it as headquarters of a chemical weapons unit.