In the north, deadly game of cat and mouse

Tough Iraqi commanders vex small U.S. forces

War In Iraq


NEAR DIBAGA, Iraq - Two American special operations soldiers sat in their Humvee on a small ridge here yesterday afternoon and watched a white-and-orange taxi speed down a nearby road. As they viewed the car through binoculars, a second group of Americans shot at it with a .50-caliber machine gun.

The soldiers said the driver of the taxi was an Iraqi soldier trying to lure them into an ambush. "They're begging you to follow him," one of the soldiers said as the taxi disappeared around a bend.

The scene was typical of what the northern front in the war in Iraq has become: a cat-and-mouse game between small U.S. special operations units and a group of Iraqi commanders who are proving to be surprisingly tenacious.

U.S. forces are trying to destroy Iraqi units and pin down the estimated 100,000 Iraqi soldiers here so that they cannot go to Baghdad. The Iraqis are retaliating against the Americans with increasingly accurate artillery fire.

On one level the Iraqis are succeeding. After withdrawing from a series of front-line positions around Mosul early last week, they have put up unexpectedly tough resistance along a second defensive line. Over the past several days they have thwarted attempts by special operations teams to advance, despite the aid of hundreds of Kurdish soldiers and heavy American airstrikes.

"The bottom line is that we can't seize terrain," said a special operations soldier.

But on another level, the Americans are succeeding. They have kept the Iraqi forces occupied with a relatively small number of soldiers: as many as 1,000 special operations troops and roughly 2,000 paratroopers, not enough for a major offensive. The American forces have also stabilized the area and helped deter Turkey from dispatching troops into northern Iraq.

Some Americans and many Kurdish officials have expressed frustration with the American tactics.

Although Kurdish officials say their military units are eager to mount a larger offensive, the United States has resisted. Senior officials have described two principal reasons for their restraint, one political and the other military.

First, they say, Turkey remains concerned about Kurdish military action against Kirkuk and Mosul, and the United States hopes not to inflame Turkish-Kurdish relations. The United States also does not have the large ground units here with tanks and artillery required to ensure that an attack would succeed.

Given these constraints, the northern front involves special forces units guiding airstrikes that "encourage" Iraqi units to withdraw, U.S. soldiers said. Following the orders of U.S. troops, Kurds, who have no tanks, either attack Iraqi positions or move in to fill the vacuum left by retreating Iraqis.

"We wait for each collapse at the lines," a senior Kurdish official said, "and then go through them and secure the ground."

The operations here can be deadly. A few hundred yards from where the soldiers sat yesterday afternoon, an accidental bombing of a convoy of American and Kurdish soldiers killed 18 Kurds on Sunday. The strike - the worst single incident of mistaken fire in the war - was a hint of what U.S. bombs may have been doing to Iraqi conscripts on the other side of the front line for more than two weeks.

The small, lightly armed special operations teams have had several close calls. An American team that was discovered by Iraqis behind their lines last week reportedly had to be airlifted out by helicopter. And Iraqi artillery shells that killed two senior Kurdish commanders last week came within 50 yards of hitting Americans. "They're good," one special operations commander said after several days of combat with the Iraqis.

To the surprise of some special operations soldiers, U.S. air power alone has not been enough to force the Iraqis to retreat. An infantry truism - that tanks and soldiers are needed to seize and hold ground - is apparently being reinforced here.

In a three-day period on the front line east of Mosul, special operations soldiers had U.S. planes drop more than 200 bombs on Iraqi positions in Khazir. The Iraqis did not budge from the route, the shortest into Mosul from the Kurdish-controlled enclave in northern Iraq. They reinforced their positions and retook some lost ground.

"Two companies of light infantry attacked us," a special operations soldier said, referring to roughly 200 troops. "We fought them off with light machine guns and rifles."

An effort by a special operations team and several hundred Kurdish fighters to attack Mosul from the south through the town of Gwer on Sunday morning also stalled. Despite heavy airstrikes, Iraqi artillery units were able to fire dozens of shells accurately onto advancing Kurds and Americans.

To the north of Mosul, Kurdish troops and special operations forces moved into the town of Sher Khan on Sunday morning. Kurdish commanders said they defeated the Iraqis, but residents said the Iraqis withdrew after heavy American bombing. The Iraqis have set up a new defensive line south of the city and have held their ground, Kurdish officials said.

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