OUTSIDE AIN SIFNI, Iraq – Small units of U.S. special forces battled alongside more than 1,000 Kurdish militiamen Sunday to flush Iraqi soldiers out of towns north of the major Iraqi oil city of Mosul.
The Kurds and Americans want to take Ain Sifni and other nearby towns to secure a ridgeline and protect the Kurdish-controlled city of Dohuk from Iraqi artillery.
A combination of American air strikes and Kurdish ground attacks has driven Iraqi government forces back from Kurdish territory toward the main strategic prizes of northern Iraq — Mosul and the important oil center around Kirkuk. The Kurds are now less than 20 miles from each city.
Throughout the night, truckloads of Kurdish peshmerga fighters sang and chanted as they approached Ain Sifni, a town nestled between green hills. A few even came in taxicabs.
As some of the trucks passed by, excited children waved and jumped up and down, yelling "Ameriki! Ameriki!" — greeting the American soldiers they believed to be inside.
U.S. troops said they believed that fewer than 100 Iraqi government soldiers were holed up in the town, some in a mosque and others shooting from a hospital.
The Iraqis were firing with Soviet-era Dishka machine guns, mortars and other heavy weapons. U.S. troops battled forward with rifles and light machine guns, under the cover of mortar and rifle blasts from soldiers on nearby hills.
The crash of mortar fire echoed in the hills surrounding the town and an American jet could be heard — first a whisper, then a roar, then a boom — as it dropped its weapons. Shooting from the town decreased.
"Communications is everything. Most of the Pesh don't have much in the way of radios except when you are dealing with more than 300 troops, so it's hard and slow to coordinate with each other," said a 39-year-old special forces sergeant first class from Chicago.
Most U.S. special forces troops are forbidden to use their names for publication due to the nature of their sometimes covert missions.
Ain Sifni is a center of the Yazidi people who have lived for centuries among the majority Kurdish Muslims of the area. The town is the site of a temple of the Yazidi, who worship the Peacock Angel — whom many Muslims consider to be the devil — as well as the God of their Muslim and Christian neighbors. Most of the religion's 100,000 followers live in northern Iraq and speak Kurdish.
Overnight, about 60 fighters, fighter-bombers and support aircraft from the USS Theodore Roosevelt flew strike missions over northern Iraq.
Officers aboard the carrier, located in the eastern Mediterranean, said targets included Iraqi troop concentrations, artillery, tanks and armored vehicles.
Iraq Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, speaking to Al-Jazeera Arabic television as U.S. forces moved into Baghdad on Saturday, was dismissive of the Kurdish gains.
In the north, he said, moving a position here and there "does not mean a thing."
"We have different calculations for the northern region. It does not worry us at all," he said.
In the southeast, where the autonomous Kurdish region runs along the Iranian border and reaches down to within 100 miles of Baghdad, Kurdish fighters have been massing within striking distance of the oil city of Khanaqin.