TAQTAQ, Iraq – Kurdish fighters took control Sunday of more territory left by Iraqi forces withdrawing toward the major oil center of Kirkuk, apparently to tighten defenses around northern Iraq.
The nearly 10-mile advance by the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia was unchallenged but slowed by dense mine fields left by Saddam Hussein's troops, said Ares Abdullah, a Kurdish commander.
It was the third significant shift since Thursday in the front line separating Iraqi forces from the U.S.-backed Kurds. Each Iraqi move since last week allowed Kurds to move closer to Kirkuk -- the nation's No. 2 oil-producing region and considered by Kurds as an essential part of their ethnic lands.
In the hill country south of Taqtaq -- about 35 miles southeast of the Kurdish administrative capital Irbil -- Kurdish forces can clearly see the glow of Kirkuk and its oil fields about 15 miles away.
"Our goal is now closer," said Abdullah.
The two main northern cities under Baghdad rule -- Kirkuk and Mosul -- have come under relentless attack from U.S. warplanes. The reason for the Iraqi repositioning is unclear. But Kurdish commanders believe Iraqi troops have been seriously battered and need reinforcements.
Iraqi forces could also be rearranging units since the Pentagon apparently does not yet have enough strength in the Western-protected Kurdish zone for a ground assault. Plans for a northern offensive were crippled after Turkey refused to allow U.S. troops to cross the border.
The Kurdish advance in the Taqtaq region came less than 24 hours after its forces fell back along another front: conceding more than 12 miles along the main road from Irbil to Kirkuk. Iraqi gunners have now dug in just outside Altun Kupri -- also known as Perdeh -- about 27 miles from Kirkuk.
Iraqi troops also pulled back east of Kirkuk on Thursday.
"We cannot move against them unless American planes bomb the positions," said Farhad Yunus Ahmad, leader of a front-line Kurdish unit near Altun Kupri, where Iraqi gunners control access to an important bridge.
Kurdish fighters spent Sunday clearing mines and poking through abandoned Iraqi posts. They carried away war souvenirs and anything with possible value: insulated electrical cables, helmets, vintage gas masks, casing from anti-aircraft artillery.
Kamal Aziz Mohammad sat on the dried mud and smoked a cigarette surrounded by his haul. Crows picked at food left by the soldiers. Some puppies -- perhaps left by the soldiers -- romped through the deserted camp.
"They didn't leave much, but we'll take what we can," said Mohammad as he put on an Iraqi helmet, grabbed two others and a piece of camouflage netting.
The Iraqi outposts seemed little more than rough camps. Small cinderblock and mud shelters dotted a clearing -- likely a muddy quagmire in rain and a dustbowl in the heat. Roofs were apparently tarps that were removed in the withdrawal. Dozens of positions were dug out apparently for tanks or other vehicles.
At one site -- less than 1.2 miles from the new Iraqi line -- the military jetsam included lists of patrol schedules, times of radio blackout periods and authorization to fix communications equipment. Other items were more intriguing: a mud-encrusted dress shoe and a small wooden sign covered with shiny red "Happy Birthday" wrapping paper that could have been an identification symbol.
A section from the March 10 issue of the Iraqi military newspaper, featured a patriotic poem that ended with the lines: "The enemy will tire, and Saddam will remain. You will satisfy all the Arabs with your victory."
A newspaper photo of Saddam, with bright orange tape around the edges, blew in the wind near a discarded bottle of Pepsi. In what appeared to be the commander's quarters -- where the sink was ripped from the wall and taken by the Iraqi forces -- a sign advised, "Forgiveness is the greatest revenge."
Down the road, a team of Kurdish sappers pulled up about one mine every minute.
In just five hours of work, they cleared more than 230 anti-personnel mines and 77 anti-tank mines, said the team leader, Abdullah Hamza Salim.
The smaller mines -- black and about the size of an ashtray -- were piled in a hole to be exploded. The light olive anti-tank mines, as big as a layer cake, would be destroyed in remote trenches, Salim said.
The team worked with no protective gear and used sticks to pry up the mines. At least two sappers have been injured since Saturday.
Salim said they had received some mine-clearance training but wondered why U.S. experts have not offered help.
"We would welcome the Americans, but they do not come," he said. "We face this danger alone."