Washington Post 03/23/03
BAKRAJO, Iraq, March 23 # Four U.S. military cargo planes carrying several hundred special forces troops landed overnight at this airstrip in Iraq’s Kurdish-held north, in what senior Kurdish officials described as the beginnings of a major U.S. deployment toward a northern front.
In addition to preparing to the way for a larger, airborne assault force that would arrive to take Mosul and Kirkuk, strategic oil cities held by the Baghdad government, some of the U.S. forces will also be used in a ground attack against Ansar al Islam.
The band of Muslim extremists, hunkered down in the nearby mountains along the Iran-Iraq border, was hit by a hail of U.S. airstrikes for a second straight night last night in preparation for a land assault that Kurdish officials had previously said they expected their own militias to carry out.
“This thing is changing. It’s changing big time,” said the Kurdish official, referring to U.S. plans for Iraq’s north. “There are many surprises in this war. Many, many surprises.”
The “couple hundred” U.S. forces who arrived here around 11 p.m. (3 p.m. EST) Saturday used one of two old Iraqi military airstrips in Kurdish territory that had been reconditioned in recent months under the supervision of special forces and intelligence advance teams operating discreetly in the region.
People living near the Bakrajo strip, on the outskirts of Sulaimaniyah, described being awakened by the arrival of the aircraft, which they took from the sound of propellers to be helicopters.
“They arrived here secretly,” said Mohammed Sharif Abdullah, a shepherd living beside the airfield. “Before landing, I saw many vehicles come down to the airport.”
Fouad Mahmood heard the news from his relatives as he arrived at their farm beside the newly constructed apron at the western end of the two-mile runway.
“They said our friends # the Americans # were temporarily visiting the airport,” said Mahmood, a Kurdish militiaman. “We are so happy.”
A Kurdish official said similar landings had taken place at the reconditioned runway at Harir, a town north of Arbil. The official declined to describe the number of U.S. forces expected in the Kurdish area, an autonomous area of about 17,000 square miles protected since 1991 by U.S. fighter patrols.
“They are basing around the area,” the official said.