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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 27, 2003

Airfield taken with 'jump into unknown'

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post

OVER NORTHERN IRAQ — About 1,000 paratroopers from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade parachuted into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq last night at a strategic airfield to open a northern front for U.S. forces. The operation is also aimed at discouraging Turkish troops on the border from crossing into Iraq in large numbers, a move that could precipitate fighting with Kurdish forces.

Items packed with paratroopers

The 1,000 paratroopers from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade made their jump over Iraq last night with a rucksack that included:

  • Three MREs
  • Six quarts of water
  • A Kevlar helmet
  • A protective mask and chemical suit
  • Knee pads
  • Wind goggles
  • Radios
  • Machine gun parts

Body armor and additional cold weather gear is packed in a separate duffle bag known as the "A" bag and is expected to arrive in a separate plane in a few days.

A third bag called the "B" bag is filled with nonessential items such as running shoes. The troops are convinced they will never see their "B" bags.

"Americans are asking you to make the world a better place by jumping into the unknown for the benefit of others," Col. William Mayville, the brigade commander, told the paratroopers before they boarded Air Force C-17 jets. The brigade flew from Aviano air base in northern Italy, according to a Pentagon official.

"Paratroopers, our cause is just and victory is certain," Mayville added. "I want you to join me tonight on an airborne assault."

The force dropped into northern Iraq includes rifle companies, platoons armed with mortars and anti-tank missiles, engineers for clearing mines, sniper teams, long-range surveillance teams, Air Force ground teams and Humvees equipped with missiles and .50-caliber machine guns. Heavy weaponry, equipment and more troops to support and expand the brigade's position will arrive in coming days, officers said.

The complex undertaking, one of the largest U.S. airborne combat operations since World War II, takes the airborne brigade into an area controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of two Kurdish groups governing an autonomous area that had been protected by U.S. and British fighter patrols.

It places the U.S. forces where commanders say they can influence the actions of all Iraqi, Turkish and Kurdish forces, including the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the group governing the other part of the zone. The brigade, based at Vicenza, Italy, is also positioned for involvement in the key cities of Irbil and Kirkuk, commanders said.

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Backed by heavy air cover, the airborne brigade is prepared to fight Iraqi forces it encounters and could be launched to seize key strategic objectives outside Kurdish-controlled territory, officers said.

One of the brigade's immediate aims is to keep the estimated 40,000 Turkish troops on the border from starting a "war within a war" with U.S.-backed Iraqi Kurd forces.

Turkey fears the Kurds' involvement in the war in Iraq would give them leverage to cement a united autonomous zone. That, Turkey believes, could awaken similar demands among its Kurd minority.

After several days of mixed signals from Turkey's political leaders, the chief of the Turkish armed forces said yesterday that Turkey would coordinate any additional deployment of troops to northern Iraq with the United States, backing down from previous threats to send forces across the border despite U.S. and Kurdish objections.

The military wields tremendous influence in Turkey, and the statement by Gen. Hilmi Ozkok was seen as the most reliable sign that Turkey was backing down, simplifying the Pentagon's plans for a northern front.

Establishing a northern front has been a high priority for the U.S. Central Command, as is plainly evident by the fleet of C-17 transport aircraft assembled to move the brigade. The number of planes being used is classified, but it represents a significant portion of U.S. airlift capacity worldwide. War planners have assigned an array of surveillance aircraft and a large number of fighter combat sorties to provide close air support to the brigade.

"If you look at the assets being thrown into this mission, it's absolutely incredible," a senior officer said.

Nonetheless, the overall size of the operation is significantly smaller than initially conceived by U.S. war planners. The earlier plan would have had the Army's 4th Infantry Division invading Iraq through Turkey. The 173rd Airborne was to accompany the armored force on the attack. Instead, because Turkey refused to host U.S. troops, the light infantry brigade represents the United States' major ground combat force in the north.

Near the border with the Kurdish-controlled region are 10 Iraqi army divisions, including one from the elite Republican Guard, near Mosul.

Airstrikes directed by U.S. Special Forces in recent days have damaged several of the Iraqi divisions, none of which is near full strength, according to intelligence officers. They expect some of the units will capitulate with the arrival of a large U.S. force.

However some of the Iraqi units have shown aggressive behavior and are expected to fight, in particular the 16th Infantry Division.

Some U.S. officers see their biggest threat in the north as terrorism, in particular from the group Ansar al-Islam. Intelligence officers expect the brigade could be the target of car bombings, sniper fire or drive-by shootings.

Last night's jump caps months of frantic preparations by the 173rd.

After Turkey refused to grant U.S. forces permission to launch an attack from its territory, the brigade scrambled to change plans.

Brigade officers described the operation as the largest U.S. paratrooper jump since the invasion of Panama in 1989. It was the 173rd Airborne's first combat jump since Operation Junction City in 1967, the only large combat tactical airborne operation in the Vietnam War.

Commanders had the option to fly the brigade into the airfield, which is in territory controlled by friendly Kurdistan Democratic Party forces and has been occupied in recent days by a small number of U.S. Special Forces. But they were concerned that flying a force onto a relatively primitive landing strip would take too long to build significant combat power.