Gen. Sarbaz Barbani, a Kurdish militia commander, looked at the zigzag line of 25 men heading away from the front and became enraged.
"Where are you going?! We have pesh merga still fighting!" he called out, using the Kurds' name for the guerrilla fighters. "Get back here! Where do you think you're off to?" His face turned the color of his red checkered scarf.
An aide whispered that the soldiers had no food and were going for a bite in Kalek, four miles away. "Get back here!" yelled Barbani, unpacified. The troops reversed direction, double-time.
So ended the second day in the battle for a bumpy road that connects Irbil, the largest town in Kurdish-held territory, with Mosul, Iraq's third-biggest city. It's slow going. Since the fighting began, the Kurds and U.S. Special Operations units backing them up have taken only six miles of roadway. Having initially fled front-line ridges in a matter of hours, the Iraqis now seem intent on slowing their retreat, notwithstanding sometimes heavy U.S. airstrikes.
The Kurdish-U.S. alliance is a strange fit -- a hybrid of World War I-type warfare and Star Wars-era technology. The Kurds kicked off Friday's battle at dawn by moving along low hills on two sides of Khazer, a town that controls a bridge over a river of the same name. Most of the pesh merga walked. When one group arrived near Manguba, a hamlet of mud houses just south of Khazer, they occupied abandoned Iraqi trenches and didn't move for the rest of the day.
"The area was clean. Why show ourselves? Why waste ammunition?" asked Arif Mohammed, who carried a rusty antitank rocket launcher. Every once in a while, Rashid Mahmoud, the unit's machine gunner, fired off a few rounds toward a hill beyond Khazer. "They need to know we are here," he said.
The Iraqis mainly peppered Khazer and surrounding areas with mortars and artillery. The blasts and thumps made for scary noise, but the Kurds suffered no casualties. The Iraqis had retreated a half-mile northwest of Khazer overnight and made no effort to return. About 200 pesh merga were involved in the battle for the road, and several dozen stayed a little to the north, beyond Khazer, as night fell.
Compared to the warfare in southern Iraq, the northern front seems inconsequential. U.S. forces in the north, numbering around 3,000, are far from adequate to take either Mosul or the nearby city of Kirkuk and the key oil fields around them. Much less could they roll to Baghdad.
For the Kurds, however, each step forward is a satisfying victory. This territory was once home to tens of thousands of Kurds. The government of President Saddam Hussein expelled them during successive efforts to quell Kurdish revolts. Baghdad is not an object of desire for the Kurds, but these wheat fields and pastures are. "I'm happy," said Barbani, notwithstanding the momentary anger over his troops' unauthorized exit. "This is our land, and we are taking it back. There's joy for all of us."
He expressed contentment with American help. "They're here to free us," he said.
The Special Operations troops stayed on a hill about a mile behind the pesh merga's front positions. They rode to the hill in white Land Rover Defenders, four or five to a vehicle. The trucks were stuffed with equipment and maps -- a contrast to the pesh merga, who carried neither maps, food or, in some cases, water. Kurdish equipment is usually limited to bullets and rifles.
The U.S. troops were outnumbered by reporters who flocked to the scene. All the U.S. soldiers refused to talk except one officer, who reported that Iraqi tanks were on the move, only five miles away. This news persuaded some of the journalists to head toward Irbil. Pesh merga who were lounging around on the grass shrugged. "We don't think they are that close. The gentleman is joking, perhaps," one said.
The pesh merga, which means "those who face death," are media friendly. The guerrillas can be persuaded to let reporters informally "embed" -- Pentagon terminology for the attachment of reporters to military units. The offer of some bottled water helps shake loose a Kurdish invitation.
One reporter shared a trench with one of the fighters. Ahmed Rasul, 50, is a veteran of three Kurdish uprisings. Asked if he was getting too old for this, he said, "You're never too old to be a pesh merga." He didn't fire his AK-47 rifle all day.
At one point in early afternoon, the Iraqis fired a shell near enough to Rasul's trench to shake dirt loose. A few minutes later, the whirr of a mortar shell passed overhead. Wherever it landed, it didn't explode. "God is Great," said Rasul.
At about 3 p.m., the vapor trail of a B-52 was clearly visible overhead. It circled for three hours without dropping a bomb. Rasul formed a circle with his hands and asked in broken English, "Hit, hit, when?"
At 6 p.m., Rasul and his comrades were ordered back to the hillock, where Barbani had arrived. The pesh merga sweated profusely along the march -- the temperature exceeded 80 degrees Friday.
The Americans and their trucks had moved away from the action, leaving behind about a half-dozen spotters, night vision equipment and a communications truck.
Barbani told a reporter that three members of Saddam's Fedayeen, a militia loyal to the Iraqi president, had died in an airstrike on a car. The Fedayeen have spearheaded guerrilla harassment of U.S. troops in the south. Barbani said he expected further Kurdish advances Saturday. "The army wouldn't fight if the Fedayeen didn't hold a gun to their head," he insisted.
The U.S. officer, who earlier reported the approach of tanks, said to the remaining reporters: "There are Iraqi tanks at 1,200 meters. Bye-bye."
Barbani shrugged and dipped some bread into yogurt brought to him by an aide. The B-52 circled but dropped no bombs.