CHAMCHAMAL, Iraq – Coalition warplanes bombed a military barracks in northern Iraq on Monday, shattering windows for miles around and igniting huge plumes of smoke. Frightened residents fled the area in a stream of cars, taxis and buses.
At least six bombs struck Iraqi positions with such force that the ground shook three miles away in the city of Chamchamal.
A top Kurdish military official, Rostam Kirkuki, said the Americans bombed the entire corridor between Chamchamal and Kirkuk, a key oil center.
The few residents who had not yet fled started to pack up and leave. Vehicles of all sizes poured onto the main road out of the town.
"People are evacuating, but not because of the bombing. They are afraid Saddam will respond with chemical weapons," said Ahmad Qafoor, a schoolteacher.
Warplanes continued to fly overhead after the first wave of bombings that struck the Bani Maqem barracks, close to the line that separates the Kurdish-held area, including Chamchamal, from territory under the control of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
In the nearby village of Shoresh, civil servant Ali Nouri Karim said he spotted Iraqi soldiers evacuating the area and pulling people into ambulances.
Residents contacted by telephone in Kirkuk, 25 miles to the west of Chamchamal, said the city came under heavy bombardment by coalition aircraft. An unknown number of casualties were brought to local hospitals, they said.
Minutes before the bombings in Chamchamal, several loud explosions heard from the direction of Qara Hanjir, according to Kurdish soldier Mohammed Omar Mohammed.
Qara Hanjir is situated between Chamchamal and Kirkuk and is the site of an Iraq military barracks and command post.
The United States has been building up its presence in the Kurdish north, bringing in warplanes and military personnel. Over the weekend, U.S. air strikes in northern Iraq pounded positions of the militant Ansar al-Islam group, an Islamic group with alleged al-Qaida and Baghdad ties.
The Kurdish autonomous area has been under American and British aerial protection against Saddam since the 1991 Gulf War.
The United States wanted to use Turkey to attack Iraq from the north, but the Turkish parliament refused to grant access to ground troops.
Mohammad Haji Mahmoud, leader of the Kurdistan Social Democratic Party and a key member of the Iraqi opposition, said the Americans are welcome to use Kurdistan as a staging ground for a northern assault against Saddam's regime.
"We're not going to say no to anything the Americans want," he said. "America is the true liberator and the only one who could liberate us from this regime. We couldn't do it with our rusty Kalashnikovs in more than 40 years."