WASHINGTON – About 1,000 U.S. Army troops parachuted into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq Wednesday, marking the first large coalition ground force which could open another front against Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Soldiers from the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade seized an airfield at about 4 p.m. EST, a senior Pentagon official said. He said the troops did not encounter any hostile fire.
The troops landed at an airfield called Bashur, about 30 miles south of the Turkish border in territory controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Party, according to Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Ken Dilanian, who is accompanying the unit.
Pentagon officials have said for weeks they would have U.S. forces in northern Iraq to open another front against Saddam Hussein’s forces. The vast majority of the coalition ground troops in Iraq are moving toward Baghdad from the south after entering from Kuwait.
“I can only tell you yes, they’ve gone in. They’re on the ground,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Collins, a spokesman for the U.S. Army’s Southern European Task Force. The 173rd, based in Vicenza, Italy, is part of the task force.
Future airlifts into the area will include supplies and support personnel for the 173rd’s fighters, defense officials said. The airfield’s 6,700-foot runway is long enough to land C-17 Globemasters and other U.S. military cargo planes.
Several hundred U.S. special forces already were in northern Iraq, one official said, declining to elaborate on the mission. Coalition airstrikes in portions of northern Iraq controlled by Saddam’s regime have hit Iraqi military forces in the field and other strategic targets, the official said.
Pentagon officials had hoped to have the Army’s 4th Infantry Division invade Iraq from the north, but Turkey balked at allowing up to 62,000 U.S. troops on its soil to prepare for that option. The use of the 173rd shows the military has shifted to a smaller, lighter force.
Military officials say they would have liked to have secured key oil fields around the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk — and perhaps the cities themselves — by now, but they are confident of the revised plan’s success.
Besides the strategic cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, another key target in northern Iraq is Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown and the tribal center for most of his inner circle. Most of the Adnan Division of Iraq’s Republican Guard relocated from the Mosul area to the Tikrit area shortly before the war began.
Another key mission for the 173rd could be to keep order in northern Iraq, which is controlled by two semi-autonomous Kurdish factions but also includes several splinter groups and a base for the al-Qaida linked Ansar al-Islam. Turkey has said it may send more troops into northern Iraq to prevent refugees from moving north, while U.S. officials have said they advised Turkey against sending large additional forces into northern Iraq.