Kurdish forces, backed by U.S. air power, have skirmished with Iraqi troops for the first time along the northern front, won a quick victory and freed a village of 200 families from central government control.
The battle, which took place Tuesday, appears to be part of a sudden and ongoing collapse of Iraqi front-line positions. The Iraqis were located north of the oil towns of Mosul, 20 miles south of here, and Kirkuk, farther to the southeast. As night fell today, Iraqi forces had pulled troops back to a line near the towns of Makhmur and Shaykhan. The Iraqis have withdrawn forces to within six miles of Mosul and 10 of Kirkuk.
Previously, only U.S. airstrikes had been used against Iraqi central government forces along the line that separates Iraqi from Kurdish forces. But the little battle in the rolling hills here was a departure.
After a night of bombing Tuesday, the Iraqis retreated. Then, Kurdish pesh merga fighters stationed nearby moved in to take the Iraqi posts. But the Iraqis returned, using mortar and machine-gun fire. A mortar round killed one Kurdish fighter, but the pesh merga counterattacked and drove off the Iraqis.
The Iraqis evidently were not intending a retreat. Rather, they were rotating troops at this rural hamlet. A B-52 bomber assault interfered. "They tried to come back, shot at us and we shot back," said Sarbaz Barpir, the Kurdish commander here. "They fled, and that was it."
The Kurds took 33 prisoners, including a major, captain and lieutenant. They captured at least one truck, two jeeps, a recoilless rifle, a machine gun, food and some helmets, which the fighters requisitioned for their own use.
There was no indication that the Kanilan fighting was part of a larger ground campaign to dislodge Iraqi troops with coordinated U.S. and Kurdish action. Nonetheless, the Kurds said, the battle confirmed their belief that the Iraqis will flee before a combined U.S. air and Kurdish ground assault. In other places, solely under U.S. bombing, Iraqi retreats have been orderly. "We expect this to happen when we are involved," Barpir said.
U.S. Special Forces attached to the Kurdish units called in the airstrikes. Kurds have been guiding U.S. troops to help them locate targets for bombings.
Today, a half-dozen U.S. soldiers perched on a Kanilan school surveying the landscape and trying to arrange the Kurds into new defensive positions. "There's no pesh merga on the ridge!" yelled one excitedly. "There're no [expletive] pesh merga up there."
"We're here working with the pesh merga," said Capt. Ed Kroot, who spoke briefly with reporters. "The Iraqis have left and I don't know where they have gone."
The United States has stationed about 3,000 troops in Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq. The zone has been free of control by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government for a dozen years. The Kurds have declared themselves part of the anti-Hussein "coalition."
U.S. troop strength is a far cry from the 62,000 U.S. troops envisioned in the original plan to launch a northern front. Turkey rejected U.S. requests to stage an invasion from its territory. The Turks, whose own Kurdish minority harbors nationalist aspirations, are wary of the Iraqi Kurds' drive for expanded autonomy in a post-Hussein Iraq. At one point, Turkey threatened to invade Iraq unilaterally to disarm the pesh merga.
Kurdish leaders have been pressing the United States to let their 60,000-member militia storm Kirkuk. Exuberantly, Kurdish officials say the pesh merga are willing to march on Baghdad, but they indicate that Washington has yet to commit even to an assault on Kirkuk or Mosul. Both cities shelter large Kurdish populations.
For the moment, the U.S.-Kurdish alliance represents a leash on the Kurds. "We only move in coordination with the coalition," said Hoshyar Zubari, an official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of two Kurdish groups that control the north.
In Kanilan, events overtook the Kurds' restraint. Once the Iraqis returned, the Kurds acted on their own. "It wasn't exactly planned," Zubari said.
"We are in control now," remarked Barpir, who was consulting with the U.S. troops through an interpreter. His forces took up residence in rudimentary cinder-block one-story barracks along the main road. The Iraqis left a ragged volleyball net behind.
Kanilan provided a rare scene of liberation in Iraq. In areas that the Iraqis have abandoned previously, north and east of Kirkuk, villages were empty. Some had been destroyed in past Kurdish-Iraqi conflicts. Residents of others fled when the current war broke out two weeks ago.
Kanilan's families had stayed throughout. Three checkpoints on the road to Mosul and one to the north hemmed the village in. Mines ringed its fields. "Now we are happy. The Iraqis are gone and I don't think they are ever coming back," said Qadir Amin, an elderly shepherd.
Children rushed from their mud houses to clap when the Iraqis fled, Amin said. Some villagers went to the nearest Kurdish-held town of Bardarash a few miles north, to visit relatives. "A lot of us lived off smuggling. The Iraqis sold us rationed food and gasoline and we took it north," said Lohman Mohammed Ahmed, a teenager who was in the business. "I will have to find something else to do. But still I'm happy the Iraqis are gone."
The mortar fire damaged two houses in Baradash. The Kurds referred to the dead pesh merga fighter, Younis Waysi, as a martyr, a designation in the Middle East for anyone who dies fighting the enemy, not just a suicide bomber.
Barpir said he would not order his troops forward from Kanilan for the time being. "We would like to go with the Americans and free Iraq together. We are waiting for orders," he said.