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Clark: Northern force can be built 'in no time'

Retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark

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(CNN) -- The beginnings of a northern front in the Iraq war took shape Thursday as the U.S. military dropped 1,000 paratroopers into the country's Kurdish-controlled zone.

The military had hoped to transport the 4th Infantry Division's vehicles and troops over land, but the United States failed to reach an agreement with Turkey about using its military bases to gain access to northern Iraq.

Retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, a CNN analyst and former NATO supreme allied commander, discussed the reasons for the airdrop and its usefulness.

CLARK: U.S. forces have made their initial airhead -- the area secured by the paratroopers Thursday. Now they are going to build up their strength, and then they're going to squeeze their position south toward Baghdad.

And that was always the plan. The question is how much combat power they can get into the area now that the Turks haven't allowed us to go through. But the coalition forces will continue to use this airhead and continue to build up combat power until they are successful.

The question is: Why now? Why not sooner? Why not later? I think the reason is because a second front is desperately needed right now.

Because of the confusion over the Turks and the Turkish concerns about the Kurds, because of the obviously stiff Iraqi resistance and because of the difficulties in movement and the delay in the 4th Infantry Division, this is the time for a second front.

Not having the 4th Infantry Division there in the north was probably a 30 percent to 40 percent problem at the outset. It may have slowed them down a little bit, but it wasn't a decisive setback at all. Now this force is going to change the situation, and it will take a little more time.

With reportedly about 1,000 soldiers dropped in so far, the first mission is always to secure the airhead. To accomplish that mission, you've got to occupy the high ground around the area. Maybe the area needs some improvements. Maybe it needs communications and navigation equipment so you can get in at night, in dust storms and so forth.

All of what's necessary will be put in. An Air Force tactical air control element will be put in on the ground to bring in aircraft. They've got to establish the marshaling area on the ground, so they can work that area and increase the tempo of the air flow (the incoming planes). And then they just start landing.

The coalition has lots of forces in Germany. They can fly in one tank on every C-17 Globemaster transport plane or a couple of Bradley fighting vehicles on every C-17. And in no time, they can build this force.

To build up a brigade-size force, it would probably take two weeks for an all armored or "heavy" effort. But they can have a heavy-light operation, and they can bring assets up from the 101st Airborne Division and deploy them around.

By light, I mean dismounted infantry and foot mobile forces. You can move them by helicopter. You can move them by Humvee. You can commandeer some local trucks and put them in the back of trucks.

Then they can put a combination force on the ground that, within a few days or a week, will be combat effective and make a difference.

Gen. Wesley Clark was NATO supreme allied commander from 1997 to May 2000. He was also the commander in chief of the U.S. European Command. In 1999, he commanded Operation Allied Force, NATO's military action in the Kosovo crisis. Clark later wrote about his experiences in "Waging Modern War." He is one of CNN's military analysts, along with retired Brig. Gen. David Grange and retired Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd. Their briefings will appear daily on CNN.com.

EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN's policy is to not report information that puts operational security at risk.


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