Iraqi troops withdraw from two more front-line areas in north


QUSH TAPA, Iraq - Iraqi soldiers have pulled back from two more front-line positions around the strategic city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, Kurdish officials said yesterday.

Both withdrawals early Friday appeared to be organized efforts to minimize the risk of bombardment, not panicked retreats.

The Iraqis who withdrew faced no ground attack from American or Kurdish forces but had endured days of bombardment from American planes. Kurdish officials said six Iraqi soldiers defected just before the withdrawal here, but the officials would not allow them to be interviewed. Iraqi forces withdrew from a third front-line position east of Kirkuk last week.

"It seems to be a general military directive for the Iraqi forces to tighten up their defenses," said Hoshyar Zuberi, a senior Kurdish official. He said the Iraqis were trying "to withdraw their forces to a comfortable position."

The pullback exposed a network of crude but extensive bunkers and a mass of land mines. Kurdish soldiers here showed off at least 50 anti-tank mines and 50 anti-personnel mines that they said Iraqis had planted on and beside the two-lane asphalt road.

One Kurdish soldier was wounded when an anti-tank mine detonated yesterday afternoon, but otherwise gleeful Kurdish soldiers armed with assault rifles walked into the Iraqi positions and looted bunkers.

Elsewhere in Kurdish Iraq, the United States continued to bring in troops and supplies at two airstrips. American forces are massing in the pocket of territory where Kurds who broke with Saddam Hussein in 1991 have maintained years of self-rule under American protection. American planes have been heavily bombing targets in and around Kirkuk and Mosul, another Iraqi-held city, for the past several days.

Maj. Rob Gowan, spokesman for the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which flew into Harir on Wednesday night, said the entire brigade is on the ground. He declined to give exact numbers but said the force included "a few thousand" paratroopers.

C-17 jet cargo planes have been arriving at the Harir airfield at night with other transport aircraft, he said, and Humvees are becoming a common sight in northern Iraq.

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