About 1,000 US Army troops parachuted into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, putting the first large coalition ground force into place for opening another front against Saddam Hussein's regime.
The soldiers from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade deployed in an airfield just before midnight local time, a senior Pentagon official said Wednesday. He said the troops did not encounter any hostile fire.
U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters closed off a highway and roads near the airstrip where troops were said to be arriving, outside the town of Bashur, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of the Kurd-controlled city of Irbil.
From the highway, dusted from a recent snow, a flashing light from the airstrip's control tower was visible in the distance, and three helicopters could be seen landing, flying with nearly all their lights extinguished.
The paratroopers, including elite Army Rangers, jumped out of low-flying C-17 Globemaster transport planes into Bashur airstrip, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter accompanying the unit. Once on the ground, the reporter said, they scrambled to set up a security perimeter and traffic checkpoints around the airfield.
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 (2,042-meter) runway is long enough to land C-17s and other U.S. military cargo planes.
Pentagon officials have said for weeks they would have US forces in northern Iraq to open another front against Saddam'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 US. Army's Southern European Task Force. The 173rd Airborne, based in Vicenza, Italy, is part of the task force.
Several hundred US. special forces already were in northern Iraq, one defense 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 US. 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.
Though no hostilities were expected during the deployment, the 173rd decided to parachute in rather then ferry troops in by plane so that a significant combat force could mass almost immediately to protect itself, officers said, according to the Inquirer reporter. 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 US officials have said they advised Turkey against sending large additional forces into northern Iraq.