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SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq (AP) -- Kurdish forces tightened their ring around the key oil center of Kirkuk to advance within sight of the city Tuesday following heavy coalition airstrikes on front-line Iraqi positions.
The Kurdish militia took control of the strategic Sekamian plateau, about six miles north of Kirkuk, the center of Iraq's No. 2 oil region, Kurdish media reported. The area affords a commanding view of the city and the vast oil fields.
Kurdish forces -- aided by coalition airstrikes and U.S. ground troops -- have steadily moved closer to Kirkuk and Mosul in the past week but have stopped short of mobilizing all-out offensives.
Some military officers believe the northern front will attempt to pin down Iraqi troops while U.S. forces solidify control of Baghdad. There are also fears a battle to claim Kirkuk could lead Iraqi troops to set the oil fields ablaze.
The Western-allied Kurds seized the territory north of Kirkuk after skirmishes that left at least three Kurdish fighters dead, Kurdish reports said. Coalition airstrikes then drove back Iraqi troops toward the heavily defended city -- the main prize of the northern front and considered by Iraqi Kurds as part of their ethnic homeland.
Kurdish fighters also are closing in from the southeast.
Coalition airstrikes hammered Iraqi positions near Kirkuk until early Tuesday, sending up huge flashes that lit the sky, officials and witnesses said.
Kurdish soldiers, taking up front-line positions abandoned by the Iraqis, described occasionally intense resistance from the Iraqi military. Iraqi mortar fire destroyed a key bridge in Laylan, about 12 miles southeast of Kirkuk. There were no reports of casualties.
Kurds have amassed more than 1,000 fighters in Chamchamal on the main road to Kirkuk, said a Kurdish military commander, Rostam Hamid Rahim. Rahim said by telephone that coalition air raids pounded Iraqi positions until dawn.
"The sound of explosions was very loud and shook the windows of Chamchamal homes," said Rahim.
At another front-line position -- the town of Dibagah near a key crossroads on the main Kirkuk-Mosul road -- fighting eased after battles that left at least 10 Iraqi tanks disabled. Iraqi forces have retaliated with artillery barrages after a retreat Sunday, but have not mounted a counteroffensive.
A U.S. friendly fire airstrike on a U.S.-Kurdish convoy on Sunday killed 17 Kurdish fighters and a British Broadcasting Corp. translator.
The Kurdish fighters said Tuesday they found a 22-year-old Iraqi soldier in Dibagah, about 55 miles southeast of Mosul. The soldier, emaciated and wearing a mud-splattered uniform, said he was separated from his unit during the last few days of fighting. U.S. forces talked to him, but later turned him over to the Kurds.
The soldier, eating potato chips offered by U.S. soldiers, said the Iraqi soldiers had a fairly clear idea of how the U.S.-led war was progressing in the south and that coalition forces were in Baghdad and Basra.
Asked why they continued to fight, the soldier, whose name was not revealed, said they had no choice: There were still standing orders to shoot deserters.
A group of about 40 Kurdish students turned up at the Dibagah front line to hand out plastic flowers to the soldiers in a gesture of support and thanks. One U.S. special forces soldier stuck a plastic bud in the barrel of his M-16 rifle
South of the Kurdish zone, a coalition airstrike hit a belt of military garrisons, bunkers and troop positions near the city of Khaneqin, about 90 miles northeast of Baghdad, said Bakir Mohammad, a Kurdish military official.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)