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A weak northern front could lengthen Iraq war

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"It is not hard to see how wrong that assessment was," says Sam Gardiner, a retired US Air Force colonel who has taught at the National Defense University in Washington. "Imagine the situation if the 4th Infantry Division were now at Tikrit," a stronghold of Saddam Hussein's north of Baghdad, "or even at the northern edge of the suburbs of Baghdad."

The absence from the fight of the 4th Infantry Division - currently on its way with its equipment by sea around the Arabian Peninsula to Kuwait, and not expected to join the fray for another two or three weeks - "cut off about 25 or 30 percent" of US military might, says Charles Heyman, an analyst with Jane's Land Armies.

"The northern option has changed shape," US Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged on yesterday during a visit to Turkey. "We are just now executing that part of the campaign in a different way than had originally been planned. But our planning is flexible and we will respond to events as they occur."

As Iraqi troops have fallen back under airstrikes, Kurdish militiamen and a few US Special Forces troops have advanced about 12 miles beyond the line that used to demarcate territory under Mr. Hussein's control from the autonomous Kurdish region protected by a US and British-enforced no-fly zone since the first Gulf War.

But apart from coalition bombing raids on Kirkuk and Mosul, and on Iraqi troop concentrations in the north, that is about all that has happened on the northern front.

About 1,000 paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Division dropped into Kurdish-held areas last week, and additional arrivals since then may have brought the number of uniformed US troops to between 2,000 and 3,000 according to Kurdish officials. But their main task appears to be to defuse tensions between Kurds and their longtime enemies, the Turks.

"These forces, along with large numbers of Special Operations troops, have [the goal of] preventing the rekindling of historic feuding which we've seen in years past between the Turks and the Kurds," General Franks said over the weekend.

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