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Ben Wedeman: Iraqis abandon northern ridge

CNN Correspondent Ben Wedeman
CNN Correspondent Ben Wedeman

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NORTHERN IRAQ (CNN) -- After heavy coalition bombing, Iraqi troops have disappeared from a ridgeline in northern Iraq close to Kalak, about 27 miles to the east of Mosul and on the main road between that city and Erbil.

CNN Correspondent Ben Wedeman, who is covering the northern front of the war in Iraq, described the scene Wednesday to CNN anchor Judy Woodruff.

WEDEMAN: [The Iraqi troops] abandoned their positions on a ridge that had really been pounded by U.S. aircraft over the past 10 days.

It was just before sunset here. We were watching ... the ridge below us as we saw a group of people on a road, which normally has no one on it at all, and we know that this road is mined. We assumed at the time that it was Iraqi troops surrendering, but it was Kurdish fighters making their way very cautiously, very slowly up the hill.

They had seen over the previous few hours that there was no movement on the Iraqi positions. Sometimes you see the Iraqi soldiers walking out in the open completely unarmed from one bunker to another, one trench to another. Today, in the afternoon, Kurdish fighters saw nobody.

So they went up there and they discovered not only had they abandoned those positions, they had moved four miles toward the west, toward the city of Mosul ... without a shot being fired on the ground, although those positions were fairly severely bombed over the past 10 days or so.

North of the city of Mosul, Iraqi forces pulled back about 13 miles. This was as a result of some fighting between the Kurds and the Iraqi army and also after some fairly intense bombing in that area. We saw three Iraqi army trucks destroyed by American missiles and several Iraqi soldiers who had been killed.

The U.S. troops here are mostly special operations forces providing guidance to American aircraft hitting the Iraqi positions.

Something else we noted in one of the towns that had been freed from Iraqi control was that the local people, who are Kurds, greeted the Kurdish fighters as well as the American soldiers with no standoffishness at all.

They clapped. They cheered. One man came up to me, speaking in English, saying that they were happy to see the Iraqis going. He described Saddam Hussein as a dictator. [It was] a whole different atmosphere from what has gone on in the south, where the local population has been much more cautious.

WOODRUFF: Any surprise on the part of the Kurdish people, Kurdish fighters that the Iraqi presence seems to have weakened so quickly?

WEDEMAN: We have been seeing, as our viewers probably have as well, how hard the American planes have been bombing those Iraqi positions. That really, obviously, weakened the Iraqis, shattered their morale, according to the deserters we spoke to.

But we also know, we must realize at the same time that the Iraqi forces are pulling back to more defensible positions. We know from Kurdish intelligence officials that the Iraqi forces in the north of the country, which number around 120,000, are gradually being brought around to the two main cities of Kirkuk and Mosul -- being built up in those cities where obviously they have much greater advantage in that urban environment than they do out in the open, where they are exposed to American aircraft.

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