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Last Updated:  Saturday, 29 March, 2003, 22:40 GMT
Tracking the Kurdish advance
The BBC's Jim Muir
By Jim Muir
BBC correspondent in Sulaymaniyah, northern Iraq

Iraqi troops are reported to have staged further withdrawals around the important oil centre of Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

Peshmerga guerrillas celebrate their advance in northern Iraq
The withdrawal of Iraqi forces let the peshmergas move ahead
They are said to have pulled back up to 20 kilometres (12 miles) on fronts to the north and north-west of the city.

The moves followed an earlier withdrawal from positions guarding Kirkuk's eastern approaches.

For years, the ridge to the west of the town of Chamchamal was part of the frontline between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas who have run their own affairs in northern Iraq since the last Gulf War.

Then, suddenly, the line was gone as the troops disappeared without warning.

Frontline freedom

The withdrawal did not take place under pressure on the ground.

Map of northern Iraq showing Chamchamal and Kirkuk
There had been virtually no exchanges across the line, although the ridge had been bombed twice by American jets.

Now, with the Iraqi army gone, local villagers are free to clamber over the frontline positions that were once such a source of fear for them.

We drove some 18km past those positions, along the main road west to Kirkuk, through rolling hill country and past several desolate and abandoned settlements.

It became clear that the withdrawal was not a collapse, but an orderly pull-back.

Still watching

There was no sign of haste and very little by way of equipment was left behind.

A peshmerga guerrilla gathers some Iraqi equipment
Little equipment was left behind by the Iraqis
As we stopped behind a ridge looking out over Kirkuk, now less than 20km away, two shells crashed into the immediate vicinity, indicating that the Iraqi army was watching vigilantly from its new defensive positions on the city's outskirts.

With such a big vacuum left behind, the Kurdish peshmergas from Chamchamal have been reconnoitring the area but have refrained from sending in significant forces or taking up positions along a new line closer to Kirkuk.

They are aware that Turkey is watching them closely and would be liable to react if they made a move on the city.

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