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US Air Force Plays Critical Role to Establish Northern Front - 2003-03-31

U.S. special forces and paratroopers are continuing to build up forces and equipment in northern Iraq in an effort to create a second front to launch operations against Saddam Hussein's soldiers north of Baghdad. Coalition forces have secured an airfield in the Kurdish autonomous zone and a major airlift is taking place around the clock. Since 1,000 U.S. paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade jumped into northern Iraq last week, more soldiers and large amounts of equipment have been flown into Bashur airfield each day.

The massive airlift is taking place as bulldozers and trucks operated by Kurds and U.S. troops create staging areas for vehicles and equipment being flown in.

As the buildup continues, coalition air strikes have been increasing along the dividing line along the Kurdish autonomous zone.

Iraqi soldiers have pulled back from forward positions and are apparently consolidating near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

U.S. Air Force Colonel Bob Allardice, who flies a C-17 Globemaster that has dropped paratroopers and is delivering equipment into Northern Iraq, described the moment just before the soldiers jump off the plane in a telephone interview from an undisclosed airbase.

"When you are on the airplane itself you can literally hear the roar of the troops," said Colonel Allardice. "There [are] 100 airborne troopers who stand up and start stomping, and yelling and screaming, kind of getting psyched up.

"Then they start literally running out the back of the jet and pretty soon we get a red light and we are in the combat escape and we escape out with our route as we brief on our tactics," he continued. "About a half-an-hour later we are up pretty high and after an hour or so we are out of danger."

Major Scott Lamb, an F-16 fighter pilot who has been flying bombing runs over Iraq, says while Iraq's air defenses have been badly damaged by coalition bombing, pilots are still concerned about Baghdad's surface-to-air missiles and other anti-aircraft fire.

"Whether they are getting smarter or not I think we all give them very much the benefit of the doubt," he said. "We are all up there looking for the unexpected and expecting still that they have a lot of threats that they could potentially employ against us that we need to look out for."

When the weather is good, coalition aircraft have been flying up to 1,000 sorties per day.

Pentagon officials say since the war began, coalition pilots have dropped at least 6,000 precision-guided munitions on Iraqi targets.

Sergeant Matthew York, who serves on a KC-135 Stratotanker that refuels fighter planes flying air strikes against Saddam Hussein's military, said that the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, motivate him everyday in combat.

"I have kids now and basically I tell them that daddy is keeping the monsters away, which essentially is what I am doing," he said. "My experiences here, I am trying to keep another September 11 from happening to our country and that is what I focus on here and that is pretty much what keeps me going, protecting other kids from being killed like what happened on September 11."

The Pentagon had planned to send U.S. forces into northern Iraq through Turkey, but had to postpone a northern front when the Turkish parliament rejected deployment of American troops through its territory.

With the help of the Air Force, coalition forces are now building that front, and are expected to move quickly to secure oil fields and then move south toward Iraqi troops defending Baghdad.