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The north: War's final battleground

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 10, 2003

CHAMCHAMAL, Iraq -- As resistance to the coalition advance crumbled in Baghdad Wednesday, the campaign to destroy the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein shifted its sights north to the three cities that stand as the last holdouts of his disintegrating regime.

Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, about 110 miles north of Baghdad, is likely to be the next major target of U.S.-led invasion forces, officials and opposition leaders said.

Indeed, U.S. airplanes pounded targets in Tikrit Wednesday and U.S. special forces carried out ground operations there to "soften" the battlefield, American military officials said.

During Hussein's 23 years in power, Tikrit has been his stronghold from which many of the most loyal members of his government and military leadership hail. It might be the scene of the Baath Party's final stand.

Military analysts believe it is a nerve center for the regime's crumbling security services and what's left of its command infrastructure, and perhaps the site of Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction program.

But how the United States will fight the battle for the north remains an open question -- with fewer than 3,000 U.S. combat troops forming the northern front between the semi-autonomous Kurdish-controlled region and the rest of Iraq. Sustained airstrikes have hit military and political targets in the oil-rich, northern Iraqi-held cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. Those strikes continued Wednesday night, but there has been no concerted ground offensive.

The Kurdish military forces, which purport to have as many as 60,000 troops known as peshmerga, or "those who face death," have fought against Hussein's regime for 20 years and are pushing for an opportunity to work alongside U.S. troops to liberate Kirkuk and Mosul.

Uprisings in those cities loom as a possibility the United States hopes to avoid, since it does not have enough troops to quickly move in to support the popular resistance. The United States fears it could result in a bloodbath as thousands of Hussein's forces remain entrenched in those cities.

Near Mosul Wednesday, a small group of U.S. special forces commandos backed by pro-American Kurdish guerrilla fighters captured a strategic hilltop overlooking Mosul. The capture of Mount Maqloub, 10 miles northeast of Mosul, will allow residents to flee the city, which has been the target of intensive coalition airstrikes and could be a prelude to U.S.-led forces launching a ground offensive against the city.

The 3,000-foot mountain had been a center of Iraqi defenses against airstrikes and a munitions storage site, said Hoshyar Zebari, a senior member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party that runs the western part of the Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq. He said no significant Iraqi defensive positions remain between coalition forces and Mosul.

"From our perspective it was the most important gain so far," Zebari said. "This shows the crumbling of the northern front."

In action elsewhere . . .

TROOPS SWEEP THROUGH BAGHDAD: Marines swept into Baghdad on Wednesday, seizing land and storming the homes of top Iraqi officials.

Racing in from the capital's southeastern edge, a heavily armed convoy of more than 1,000 Marines encountered snipers and machine-gun fire.

Led by 70-ton tanks, the 1st Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment stormed west on a six-lane boulevard toward the main campus of the University of Baghdad. The maneuver was part of a coordinated assault that included two Marine battalions pushing in from the east at the same time, in what commanders described as an effort to drive "a stake through the heart" of the resistance.

TWO SOLDIERS RESCUED: Two critically wounded special operations soldiers are being treated at a hospital in Kuwait after a rescue team plucked them from a battlefield 5 miles south of Baghdad, military officials said Wednesday.

The unidentified soldiers were rescued Monday afternoon in a joint effort by the Air Force, Army and special operations forces, U.S. Central Command said. Both are expected to survive.

4TH INFANTRY PREPARES: The 4th Infantry Division's tanks, howitzers and other vehicles are being hauled into Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait to make sure they are ready to roll within a week, a commander said Wednesday.

Though resistance in Baghdad is crumbling, the 1st Brigade -- with a battalion of 18 Paladin howitzers, two armored battalions with 44 Abrams tanks each and two infantry battalions -- is expecting to see combat, said its commander, Col. Don Campbell.

-- Information from the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune and the Associated Press was used in this report.

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