Kurds, U.S. Special Forces batter Iraq's northern front

Wednesday, April 2, 2003

IRBIL, Iraq -- The Iraqi soldier leaned against his truck, kicking the mud from his boots and enjoying a cigarette.

It would be his last.

Across the valley in northern Iraq, a U.S. Special Forces team watched him through binoculars and summoned a laser-guided airstrike. The soldier disappeared in a cloud of black smoke; when it cleared, only the burned-out hulk of his truck remained.

Upon a crest, overlooking the Iraqi army site, was the mismatched group behind the strike: an eight-man team with the capacity to summon state-of-the-art weaponry, and about 50 Kurdish militiamen, some carrying little more than a Kalashnikov rifle.

The Kurdish peshmerga -- it translates as "those who face death" -- provided the U.S. force with security, while patrolling nearby villages and setting up ambushes against Iraqi soldiers.

The U.S. soldiers provided training for the peshmerga, who have been fighting Saddam Hussein's soldiers for control of a ridge less than a mile away.

"The peshmerga seem dedicated," said a 34-year-old Green Beret team leader from Montana. "But after we give them all of these deadly skills, we just don't know which side of the wire they will be on in 10 years."

Most of the Special Forces fighters did not want to be identified by name because of the nature of their sometimes covert missions and the possibility of retribution.

At the Special Forces camp overlooking the village, the fighting positions of this small detachment are ringed with machine guns, high-powered binoculars and the devices used to alert war planes ranging in size and power from the Navy's F-18 and F-14 fighter jets to the Air Force's B-1 and B-52 bombers.

All night long, they bomb Saddam's ridge.

On Sunday night a B-52 carpet-bombed a half-mile long trenchline and command post with 27 bombs weighing 750 pounds each. The explosions, four miles away, turned the sky bright enough to read by.

"I wish they would surrender," said the detachment's commander, a 1996 West Point graduate. "But I know they can't. If you knew that as soon as you started down the hill, your boss would fire a round into the back of your head, would you surrender?"

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