U.S., Kurdish forces flush out militants in northern Iraq

BIYARA, Iraq - Backed by U.S. Special Forces and B-52 bombers, more than 6,000 Kurdish fighters, firing mortars and high-caliber machine guns, swept through valleys and mountain canyons in northern Iraq yesterday, defeating a group of Islamic militants with links to al-Qaida.

The battle was a stunning rout of Ansar al-Islam. By nightfall, the group's 700 guerrillas had retreated to caves in the snowy mountains along the Iranian border. Mortars echoed and campfires flickered as the wounded and the dead were hauled away in pickup trucks.

About 100 Special Forces troops fought alongside Kurdish soldiers in an attack that began at 8 a.m. local time and ended at dusk. The battle whirled through the region as Ansar guerrillas abandoned village after village, retreating from their bunkers across a landscape marred by blackened earth and fresh bomb craters. B-52s and F-14 fighter jets circled as U.S. troops on a hill directed them toward bombing targets.

"We expected stiffer resistance," said a Special Forces commander, speaking on condition of anonymity from his communications post atop Girda Drozna. "But they've been hit pretty hard over the last week" with more than 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles.

While the U.S. invasion to the south is focused on toppling President Saddam Hussein, the fight in these Kurdish-controlled northern hinterlands seeks to stem terrorism in the Middle East. It was at least a temporary victory for the Bush administration, which had alleged that Ansar manufactured chemical agents and had ties to Osama bin Laden.

Seventy Ansar guerrillas, including Arabs from Afghanistan and other countries, were killed and 30 others wounded, according to Kurdish military officials in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, which governs the eastern half of northern Iraq.

The PUK has battled Ansar for 19 months but has been unable to defeat the group or break its Taliban-like hold on more than a dozen villages. In a conventional sense, the Kurds won yesterday. But, with Ansar's guerrilla tactics, the land could change hands again.

Two Kurdish fighters were killed, 20 wounded.

Meanwhile yesterday, waves of U.S. cargo planes crammed with tanks and equipment touched down on a pitch-black airfield in northern Iraq, boosting the effort to open a second front against Hussein.

The planes unloaded Humvees, Bradley fighting vehicles and tanks onto the runway in the Harir Valley, 30 miles south of the Turkish border. The field was illuminated only by dim chemical lights on the edges of the perilously short airstrip.

U.S. commanders have said the forces landing on the airstrip, which was secured Wednesday by about 1,000 American paratroopers, could be used to help capture the strategic oil-producing cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.

Yesterday, two American MH-53 helicopters took off from the airfield, carrying troops in the direction of Chamchamal, near the Iraqi front lines. The MH-53 Super Stallions are used by U.S. Special Forces.

Two more of the large black helicopters waited on the field near the tarmac, where there were two rows of Humvees and other equipment, as well as what looked like two tanks with protective covers.

The paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade fanned out around the perimeter of the field, backed by a similar number of Kurdish fighters.

While the paratroopers rested, U.S. warplanes struck hard for the third straight day at Iraqi front-line positions outside the village of Kalak, 25 miles southeast of Mosul.

As jets roared overhead, two large blasts echoed from several miles inside Hussein-held territory, where Kurdish traders who have traveled back and forth from Mosul say Iraqi artillery positions are stationed.

On the ridge overlooking Kalak, Iraqi soldiers showed no signs of surrendering or defecting. Instead, they were seen rushing around, apparently making preparations for the next wave of air strikes.

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