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A weak northern front could lengthen Iraq war

Iraqi units, facing weak US forces in the north, are moving south to Baghdad.

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As a group of US Special Forces soldiers worked on their vehicles in the quiet afternoon yesterday, one of their colleagues acknowledged the absence of a busy schedule. "We're just enjoying the sunshine," he said.

This dusty little collection of crumbling cement houses, built near a shrine to a Sufi holy man, is set in rolling green hills in northern Iraq that by now might have seen tens of thousands of US soldiers and columns of heavy armor rolling through them, heading for the Iraqi capital.

Instead, the hills are empty save for a few shepherds tending their flocks. As the battle for Baghdad gets under way 250 miles to the south, the northern arm of a planned pincer movement has failed to materialize, complicating and probably prolonging the final US assault on Saddam Hussein's strongest military units.

"The lack of a northern front means the fight for Baghdad could be more intense and bloody than anyone originally planned," says Charles Peña, a military analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington. "It increases the risk of higher casualties and stretching the war out longer than anyone wants."

The Kurdish pesh merga militia, US allies who occupied this former Iraqi military outpost after Iraqi troops abandoned it some time in the past few weeks, are keen to go farther. In their sights they have the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, where they say Kurdish residents are ready to rise up in support of an assault.

"We are very eager to attack Kirkuk," says Neriman Rabati, the commander of the 150 pesh merga here. But he and his colleagues are obeying US orders to hold back, he adds.

The northern front, involving 60,000 men of the 4th Mechanized Infantry Division - the US Army's most modern armored unit - had been an important element in Gen. Tommy Franks's initial war plan.

He was thwarted, however, by the Turkish parliament's refusal to allow US forces to pass through Turkey en route to northern Iraq, in the face of overwhelming opposition to the war by ordinary Turks.

At the time, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the Pentagon could find "workarounds" to cope with the setback, and President Bush insisted that the reversal would mean no extra risks for American troops.

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