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Surveying the ruins of a coalition attack

By Kevin Sites

CNN's Kevin Sites
CNN's Kevin Sites

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•  Commanders: U.S. | Iraq
•  Weapons: 3D Models

In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and newsmakers around the world.

CHAMCHAMAL, Iraq (CNN) -- My crew and I are climbing the hills that overlook Chamchamal. The same ones that only a short time ago were occupied by Iraqi soldiers. The same Iraqi soldiers that fired in our direction with their Dushka machine guns on the first day of the war.

Coalition airstrikes have pounded Iraqi front-line positions in this part of northern Iraq, and U.S. Special Forces here are conferring with Kurdish fighters, with British mine clearing teams headed for the area.

It is a circumspect moment for us. Over the last week we have -- from the roof of our rented house in the valley -- combed every peak and crevice with our binoculars.

Only 1,000 meters from their bunkers, we watched the Iraqis as they walked the ridgeline, dug trenches, talked, drank from canteens and watched us in return. They were wary but familiar characters in the daily routine of our lives. Now they are gone -- some of them dead, no doubt -- the rest in retreat to Kirkuk.

We are like a line of ants. We move carefully up the footpath because Sammy, our soft-spoken houseboy and local guide, tells us there may be mines on either side. We can see dozens of Kurds at the top, scavenging what is left in the rubble.

People pass us coming down. One boy is pulling an improvised sled of corrugated tin piled with dirty, olive drab blankets. Two men maneuver a donkey over the trail, laden with metal poles and lumber -- they are wearing Iraqi helmets with camouflage netting. They are smiling broadly.

We are carrying things, too. My pack is stuffed with a videophone, satellite phone, 25 feet of cables, tripod, microphone and extra batteries. My partner, Bill, is carrying our Sony video camera and digital still camera. Mitch, one of a team of ex-military men hired by CNN to provide crew protection and security, is carrying an AK-47 with a 30-round "banana clip."

Thunder in the night

This is how it started, the coalition airstrike that drove the Iraqis from the hillside. The crew had finished an early-morning live shot on the roof of our rented house in Chamchamal and crawled back into our sleeping bags to get another hour or two of sleep.

Coalition airstrikes drove Iraqi forces from their positions near Chamchamal.
Coalition airstrikes drove Iraqi forces from their positions near Chamchamal.

The concussion of the first hit is so violent we can feel it roll through the cinder block and concrete. The sky outside our ground floor window flashes bright orange, and the thunderous explosions set off our car alarms. We jump out of our sleeping bags and begin pulling on our clothes and boots.

It is close enough to make us wonder if it is artillery from the Iraqis. If it is, Mitch tells us, they're in a position to flatten the town within a few hours. I can see him already working out an evacuation plan for us in his mind. The thoughts of being buried under a pile of concrete make me dress even faster.

Twenty minutes later there is another explosion -- slightly less powerful than the first. It is still dark and overcast, and we can't see what's being hit. When dawn finally breaks, we scan the hilltop. The stone and earth Iraqi command bunker on the northern ridge is obliterated. It looks like a pile of dirt, freshly turned with a shovel.

The green of the hilltop is now fitted with a jagged collar of scorched black earth. Over the next several hours, we do dozens of live shots from our roof, watching coalition aircraft make eight more bombing attacks against the Iraqi stronghold. This position is being hit, I report, because it's the Iraqis' first line of defense on the road west, toward the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Little more than a garbage dump

At the top, we see Kurdish Pesh Merga fighters walking around like conquering heroes. But this high ground they claim after the Iraqi retreat -- though strategically important -- is nothing more than a pockmarked garbage dump.

This is what it looks like -- thick metal poles twisted like pretzels, green rocket propelled grenades splayed out on both sides of a trench line like broken cornstalks.

Just past the debris there is a hole -- 25 feet wide and 15 feet deep -- most likely made by a 500-pound bomb. It swallows me up as I climb into its pit. Though the hillside is empty of its former occupants, there are signs of their existence: a tube of toothpaste, a bubble pack of aspirin, tattered clothing. In what was once a machine gun nest, there is the turtle curve of a helmet emerging from the mud.

I ask a Pesh Merga fighter how he feels this day. "The Iraqis killed many people in Chamchamal from this position," he tells me, pointing down in the valley. "I'm glad they're gone."

A lot of the Iraqis were probably just conscripts, I say. He shrugs, "For those ones, I feel sad."

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