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Special ops secure the west

While much of the world's attention has been focused elsewhere, U.S. forces have quietly provided another approach to Baghdad.

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2003

U.S. special operations forces operating in secret have established dominance over a broad swath of territory in western Iraq that extends about 170 miles into the country from the border with Jordan, U.S. military officials said Thursday.

While much of the area is lightly populated desert, it includes several airfields and countless hiding places U.S. military officials have worried Iraq might use to launch drone aircraft or Scud missiles against Israel, Jordan or Saudi Arabia. Its control by U.S. forces would provide not only a buffer against a potential Iraqi attack but also another approach to Baghdad.

One senior official, describing the area claimed by U.S. forces, said it stretches from the border with Jordan as far as the Mudaysis airfield, 170 miles to the east.

While some pockets of resistance might remain, the official added, forces loyal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could no longer mount a significant challenge in the area.

In contrast with the much-publicized slog north over the past week by Army and Marine troops moving out of Kuwait, or the airlift Wednesday of Army troops parachuting into northern Iraq, U.S. operations in the west have remained shrouded in secrecy. One reason is the troops in the west are believed to be basing some of their operations in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which are particularly sensitive to being identified with any such activity.

Much of the focus of the special operations troops, officials said, has been on hunting for Scud missiles and launch vehicles and storage sites for chemical or biological weapons. U.S. commanders have kept an array of surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft scanning the region, and strike aircraft have remained on alert.

"We are having very good success, we believe, in the west to limit the options of the regime on threatening its neighbors," said Army Brig. Gen. Vince Brooks, deputy director operations for U.S. Central Command.

Elsewhere, Iraqi troops abandoned a key post in northern Iraq hours after 1,000 U.S. paratroopers landed nearby, U.S. troops are under constant threat in central Iraq but landed a transport plane with supplies and in southern Iraq, Iraqi resistance remains strong but British troops farther south celebrate success.

Northern Iraq

BANI MAQAN: The first crack in Hussein's once formidable northern defense line appeared Thursday at this Iraqi checkpoint on the main highway into Kirkuk.

The post was unexpectedly abandoned Thursday afternoon by Iraqi soldiers.

The action came just hours after more than 1,000 American paratroopers jumped into friendly Kurdish territory in advance of the opening of a northern front. But those soldiers played no role in the Iraqi move, which occurred without a shot being fired.

The Iraqis' departure opened the road from the Kurdish-controlled zone into Kirkuk, and Kurdish civilians and fighters streamed in behind them, beginning what appeared to be an advance on a city of roughly 600,000 that is one of the war's ultimate political and economic prizes.

HARIR VALLEY: Braving heavy rain and hail, U.S. paratroopers from 173rd Airborne Brigade fanned out and dug foxholes at 50-yard intervals, forming a perimeter around a primitive airstrip. Two American soldiers manned heavy machine guns that commanded the road to the hilltop village of Harir. A small patrol marched its way toward the village, to set up a post there. Groups of soldiers set up small fortifications from the stones scattered on the valley floor.

Several tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles were air-dropped with the troops, and it took hours to dig the hulking vehicles out of a field of mud thick enough to pull shoes off people's feet.

Central Iraq

Marine and other allied units pressing toward Baghdad are encountering nearly constant harassment and ambush by small bands of irregular Iraqi fighters and remnants of army units they bypassed, and officers fear the resistance will only stiffen as they get closer to the capital.

"We've been contested every inch, every mile on the way up," said Col. Ben Saylor, the division's chief of staff.

The planned assault on Baghdad is about three days behind schedule, officers said.

TALLIL AIRFIELD: A C-130 transport plane arrived at Iraq's second-largest airfield, giving allies a way to supply troops without fear of Iraqi attacks on supply lines on the ground from Kuwait.

A hastily posted sign declared the airfield as "Bush International Airport." The immediate goal was to speed all the stuff of war -- fuel, ammunition, water, food, reinforcements -- to the front, shortening supply lines that had extended as much as 200 miles into Iraq.

NAJAF: Army units trying to take control of the city 80 miles south of Baghdad have killed hundreds of Iraqi men in three days of fighting.

No U.S. soldier died in the combat, though four tanks were lost, two apparently to laser-guided, Russian-made, antitank missiles.

"The Iraqis took it bad. It was suicide," said Pfc. Ionathan Simatos of Los Angeles.

With sandstorms gone Thursday, elements of the 3rd Infantry Division began sweeping the town's outskirts in an effort to stop hit-and-run attacks by Iraqi loyalist forces that have disrupted the main supply route for U.S. forces advancing to Baghdad.

Southern Iraq

AN NASIRIYAH: In the key city on the Euphrates River, more than 25 Marines were wounded in fighting, and U.S. officials said some or all of them were hurt when a Marine unit mistakenly fired on another.

"There are a lot of forces out there that still want to fight. They didn't exactly roll over and surrender," said a Marine helicopter pilot whose nickname is Lurch. "We are so wrapped up in not creating collateral damage that we are leaving great enemy strongholds behind."

BASRA: British forces continued efforts to gain control over the city, but diehard defenders of Hussein's regime have held positions inside the city amid clashes with the local population.

Adm. Michael Boyce, chief of the British defense staff, said British forces destroyed 14 Iraqi tanks that tried to leave the city during the morning. Historians said it was Britain's biggest such battle since World War II.

-- Information from the Washington Post, Associated Press, New York Times, the Boston Globe and the San Francisco Chronicle was used in this report.

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