The advance of the Kurdish militia comes after the arrival of some 1,000 U.S. paratroopers from the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade on Wednesday in what appears to be an attempt to create a second front in the north.
U.S. paratroopers on Thursday secured an airfield at Harir, some 45 miles from the main Kurdish town of Irbil.
Iraqi forces have apparently fled the front lines, Kurdish officials say, leaving behind mortars and machine guns in their bunker positions shortly after the arrival of U.S. troops, who were welcomed by Kurdish fighters.
“We have sent around 300 peshmerga [Kurdish anti-Saddam Hussein] fighters across the front so far,” senior commander Mam Rostam told a Reuters reporter.
Iraqi troops once guarding the northern border appeared to have retreated towards Kirkuk, the oil-rich city in the north, Rostam said.
“It appears the Iraqis have gone back to Kirkuk. They have defense lines there, the so-called belt around Kirkuk,” he added.
Kurdish scouts returning from a night in the hills above Chamchamal, a town in the northern Iraqi territory controlled by Kurdish groups opposed to President Saddam Hussein, told Reuters they met no resistance from the Iraqi forces that had once patrolled the northern border.
It remains unclear whether the departure of Iraqi troops represented a military defeat of the Iraqi line, or a tactical move to regroup and defend Kirkuk, BBC correspondent Jim Muir reported on Friday.
Control over of the oil fields near Kirkuk, located some 80 miles from the landing site of the U.S. paratroopers, is another key objective of U.S. forces and Kurdish allied fighters.
“Kirkuk is key,” Maj. Mike Hastings of the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade said, “The Iraqis want it, the Kurds want it, the Turks want it.”
Rostam said there had been no fighting, declaring the withdrawal of Saddam’s forces a victory for the Kurdish people.
“The [Iraqi] regime has been killing us for more than 30 years, thousands have been attacked by chemical weapons, over 5,000 villages have been destroyed and hundreds have been imprisoned and executed,” he told a Reuters reporter.
Rostam could not confirm various anonymous peshmerga accounts of five bodies found in one position near the front line.
A few Kurdish villagers had already returned to their homes in the northern Iraqi territory, Rostam said, but cautioned that the region was still littered with explosives.
“We’ve already found 200 anti-personnel and anti-tank mines,” he said.