One thousand American soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade dug foxholes around an airfield here on Thursday, where they readied a long delayed northern front against Saddam Hussein’s regime. But after the paratroopers’ midnight airdrop into the rain-soaked and rocky farmland of northern Iraq, they found precious few assets to protect — just two helicopters — underscoring the challenges facing U.S. troops in the north.
Security was tight around the Hariri airfield, about 40 miles south of the Turkish-Iraqi border. Kurdish militiamen, long opponents of Saddam and drafted to provide perimeter security for the new American arrivals, chased away reporters. In the soggy fields around the airstrip, soldiers from the 173rd shook their arms and legs to keep warm while they waited for reinforcements to arrive.
In the coming days, Pentagon officials say, tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles will arrive at Hariri on C-130 transport planes. The 173rd’s fighting force is expected to almost triple in size.
But as the soldiers surveyed their lonely patch of battleground, the difficulties of the job ahead became glaringly apparent. There are no off-shore supply ships close by. The U.S. military infrastructure available in many allied Persian Gulf states is but a distant dream. The northern Iraqi airstrip now controlled by the 173rd can handle only a limited number of massive military cargo planes like the C-17.
SMALL AND COMPLEX
Compared to the U.S. invasion of southern Iraq, in which more than 70,000 American ground troops are moving toward Baghdad, the northern front will be much smaller, yet perhaps equally complex and as fiercely resisted by Saddam’s forces.
Airborne troops, without the continuous land supply routes made available to ground forces, will have to make do initially with what they take with them. For the 173rd Airborne Brigade, that means tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers, but far fewer than a regular infantry division. InsertArt(1841148)Although other airborne divisions may yet join the northern battle, the full fighting force of the 173rd Brigade, one of the U.S. Army’s premier groups, will number about 3,000.
Lighter armed and fewer in number, airborne troops will face a much riskier battle.
Turkey, Iraq’s northern neighbor and a traditional American ally, balked at letting the U.S. 4th Infantry Division cross its border. So the Pentagon must rely on an air insertion, and resupply, of its troops.
IRAQI TROOPS REMAIN
Ahead of the 173rd’s arrival, U.S. warplanes have been pounding military targets in the north, around key cities like Kirkuk and Mosul.
The tactic is aimed at softening up Saddam’s defenses before American troops engage them. But intelligence reports from Saddam-controlled areas suggest that his northern forces, believed to number around 100,000, have emerged unscathed from the bombing.
According to sources in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, almost all the troops were dispersed before the air campaign began. The delay in a northern front has also allowed Saddam’s troops to hear, at least through news reports, about the stiff resistance their comrades in the south are putting up against the American invasion. Those reports could spur the northern troops to counterattack, rather than lay down their arms.
To better manage its two fronts in the war to oust Saddam, the Pentagon may decide to delay its northern battle plans further. Although its future orders will likely be to move toward Kirkuk and Mosul, the 173rd’s immediate plans are not known.
Given the brigade’s proximity to the Turkish border, its high-profile arrival — parachuting in by the hundreds rather than landing in C-130 transport planes — suggests the group’s presence may be as much a show of force rather than an absolute tactical move by Pentagon commanders.
For now, the arrival has placated the Kurds, who worry that further delay in the north will jeopardize the security of Kurds still living under Saddam’s regime. The 173rd Brigade’s proximity to Turkey also sends a signal Ankara, which has said it may move troops across the border into northern Iraq as a warning to Kurdish nationalists who are seeking an independent state in the region.
(MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in Iraq.)