IN THE SKIES OVER NORTHERN IRAQ - More than 1,000 U.S. Army paratroops opened the war's northern front in dramatic fashion yesterday when they jumped out of low-flying jets in the dark of night and seized an airfield in Iraq's Kurdish-controlled region.
The bold, carefully planned mission by the 173rd Airborne Brigade was the 29th combat jump in U.S. history and one of the largest paratroop drops since World War II. The paratroops, many of them Army Rangers, flew directly from Aviano Air Force Base in northern Italy, near their base in Vicenza.
Fifteen Air Force C-17 Globemaster transport planes dropped men and equipment onto an airstrip dubbed Objective Buford near the city of Bashur, 30 miles from the Turkish border. The men and a handful of women had trained to jump at an altitude of about 500 feet and hit the ground at speeds of up to 17 mph.
Once on Iraqi soil, the units were to scramble with their M-4 rifles and 100-pound back packs to predetermined meeting points, then set up a perimeter and traffic checkpoints around the airfield, which has a runway 6,700 feet long.
The parachute assault, assisted by U.S. Special Forces soldiers working with Kurds on the ground, was designed to establish an American combat force in a region laced with ethnic tensions, said the 173rd's commander, Col. William Mayville.
"I think our presence will act as a stabilizer," Mayville said. "Our presence changes the dynamics of the environment."
The Bashur airfield was chosen because it could handle repeated landings by the 174-foot-long C-17s, Mayville said. A parachute insertion was chosen rather then ferrying troops in by plane because an air assault ensured that a significant combat force could mass almost immediately to protect itself, officers said. On Tuesday, 173rd commanders said they were told that a Special Forces "A" Team was overrun by a force of 100 Iraqis in Arbil, about 35 miles from the drop zone.
"Nobody wants war," said Lt. Col. Dominic Caraccilo, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry, one of the brigade's two infantry battalions. "But this is a paratrooper's dream."
The 173rd's operation is a major departure from the Pentagon's original plan for northern Iraq that called for the Army's 4th Infantry Division, with hundreds of tanks and sophisticated heavy weapons, to move into the north from a staging ground in Turkey. The 173rd, a light infantry unit that lacks armor, was slated to join that effort.
But the Turkish government declined to grant permission for U.S. troops to stage from its soil, so the military's central command changed the plan. As it stands, the relatively lightly armed paratroopers are "flapping out there," as Mayville put it last week, with rifles, mortars, machine guns and anti-tank missiles.
But the colonel said he was confident that with AC-130 gunships providing air cover, his brigade could handle any threat.