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SOZ BLAKH, Iraq (AP) -- American forces supporting Kurdish fighters against President Saddam Hussein's army took up positions in the no-man's land south of the Kurdish autonomous region and in the north, where U.S. warplanes hit Iraqi positions near the commercial center of Mosul.
The combination of American air strikes and Kurdish ground attacks in the north has driven Iraqi government forces back from the Kurdish frontiers toward the two main northern districts in Baghdad hands: Mosul and the important oil center around Kirkuk. The Kurds are now less than 20 miles from each city.
Overnight Saturday to Sunday, about 60 fighters, fighter-bombers and support aircraft from the USS Theodore flew strike missions over northern Iraq. Officers aboard the carrier, located in the eastern Mediterranean, said targets included Iraqi troop concentrations, artillery, tanks and armored vehicles.
Iraq Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, speaking to Al-Jazeera Arabic television as U.S. forces moved into Baghdad on Saturday, was dismissive of the Kurdish gains.
In the north, he said, moving a position here and there "does not mean a thing."
"We have different calculations for the northern region. It does not worry us at all," he said.
In the southeast, where the autonomous region runs along the Iranian border and reaches down to within 100 miles of Baghdad, Kurdish fighters have been massing along the frontier within striking distance of the oil city of Khanaqin.
U.S. Special Forces have joined them, apparently to lend the kind of support they have in the north -- calling in air strikes on Iraqi positions. They could be seen Friday and Saturday in the no-man's land between the sides, an area about 35 miles from Khanaqin.
Kurdish troop strength along the southern frontline has risen from less than 400 several weeks ago to between 1,500 and 1,800 now. Mola Bakhtiyar, a Kurdish political and military leader, said it would rise quickly to about 3,000.
The Kurds, long oppressed by Saddam's regime, established an autonomous region in the north in 1991 under the protection of U.S. and British air patrols.
In the northwest near Mosul, U.S. aircraft carried out a sustained attack Saturday on Iraqi positions outside the village of Khazer, where Kurds seized an important bridge on Friday. The front line appeared to have moved several kilometers west into formerly Iraqi-held territory.
A large convoy of soldiers from the U.S. 173rd Airborne Division took up positions less than 10 miles to the east of Khazer, and about three miles east of Kalak, where the Iraqis had abandoned a large position on Thursday.
The 25 vehicles carried some 250 soldiers -- about a fifth of the paratroopers dropped in to the Kurdish north on March 26. One group of 14 vehicles took up position on a ridge outside of Kalak in pastures and freshly plowed fields.
At the town of Fida, about 25 miles north of Mosul, eight to 10 Special Forces troops and about 150 Kurdish fighters came under intermittent artillery fire and heavy machine gun fire during a coalition reconnaissance mission.
The fire came from a hill overlooking an Iraqi army barracks, which the U.S. soldiers believed to house several hundred government troops, and apparently from an estimated 100 Iraqi troops within the town of Fida. The allied forces destroyed two T-55 Iraqi tanks at the scene of the fighting, which continued Saturday night.
Regaining control of Kirkuk, in particular, is a long-held dream of the Kurds. The Baghdad government has for years moved Kurds and other minorities, such as ethnic Turks and Assyrians, out of the oil-rich areas in order to consolidate control and give the regions an Arab character.
The United States, which has protected the Kurdish zone with air patrols since its foundation, has allowed Kurdish militiamen to advance unchallenged yet keeps intact a U.S. pledge to Turkey to block any independent Kurdish offensive.
Turkey fears that if the Kurds are allowed to take over the northern oil cities they might establish an independent state and inspire Turkey's own, restive, Kurdish minority.
The Kurds insist that Turkey must not be allowed to bring its own troops into Iraq, and the Turks have conceded. The United States has brought in more than 1,000 paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Division, apparently as an alternative to the much larger force it had hoped to bring in from Turkey to use for a northern front -- until Turkey balked.
Special forces, who have been present in small numbers in the north for several weeks, took part in a joint campaign with Kurdish fighters last week to destroy a base of the allegedly al-Qaida-linked Ansar al-Islam.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)