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Kurds Take Northern Iraq Town

Kurds Take Northern Iraq Town

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OUTSIDE AIN SIFNI, Iraq (AP) -- Aided by U.S. special forces, more than 1,000 Kurdish militiamen swept into this northern Iraq town Sunday as coalition forces pushed toward Mosul and the region's major oil fields.

American air strikes and Kurdish ground attacks have driven Iraqi government forces back from Kurdish territory toward the main strategic prizes of northern Iraq -- Mosul and the important oil center around Kirkuk. The Kurds are now less than 20 miles from each city.

The Kurds and Americans have wanted to take Ain Sifni and nearby towns to protect the Kurdish-controlled city of Dohuk from Iraqi artillery.

During the battle, U.S. airstrikes destroyed two large Iraqi trucks full of troops headed toward Ain Sifni.

Hundreds of Kurdish troops and peshmerga fighters in their balloon-style pants and colorful tunics made their way down Ain Sifni's rubble-strewn streets. Occasional enemy mortar fire from outside the town limits whistled then exploded, causing the soldiers to scatter.

Earlier, residents waved at U.S. troops passing along a main road that runs through the town. Excited children waved and jumped up and down, yelling "Ameriki! Ameriki!"

There was also a steady flow of refugees leaving Ain Sifni, which is a center of the Yazidis, followers of an obscure, ancient religion who have lived for centuries among the majority Kurdish Muslims of the area.

U.S. troops said they believed fewer than 100 Iraqi government soldiers had been holed up in the town, some in a mosque and others shooting from a hospital.

The Iraqis were firing with Soviet-era Dishka machine guns, mortars and other heavy weapons. U.S. troops battled forward with rifles and light machine guns, under the cover of mortar and rifle blasts from soldiers on nearby hills.

The crash of mortar fire echoed in the hills surrounding the town and an American jet could be heard -- first a whisper, then a roar, then a boom -- as it dropped its weapons. Shooting from the town decreased.

"Communications is everything. Most of the Pesh don't have much in the way of radios except when you are dealing with more than 300 troops, so it's hard and slow to coordinate with each other," said a 39-year-old special forces sergeant first class from Chicago.

Most U.S. special forces troops are forbidden to use their names for publication due to the nature of their sometimes covert missions.

About 60 aircraft from the USS Theodore Roosevelt flew overnight 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 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.

Futher southeast, where the autonomous Kurdish region runs along the Iranian border and reaches within 100 miles north of Baghdad, Kurdish fighters have been massing within striking distance of the oil city of Khaneqin.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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