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STUTTGART, Germany — The commander of U.S. forces in Europe says a group of paratroops who jumped into northern Iraq last week is likely to be only the first wave of a larger contingent in a northern front task force.

Marine Gen. James L. Jones, head of the U.S. European Command, told Stars and Stripes on Thursday, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we continue to see a force flow into the north drawn from the assets we have here in Europe.”

Paratroops from the Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade jumped into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq on March 27, joining special operations units already on the ground there.

“Anything we can do to bolster that force is something that is useful because it causes the Iraqis to have to react,” he said.

With Turkey agreeing Wednesday to allow critical food, fuel, water and other logistics supplies across the border, Jones said that combat reinforcements into northern Iraq should begin flowing soon.

“With the support that we can now get overland, it will radically enhance our ability to sustain ourselves,” said Jones, explaining that most of the supplies will come through commercial Turkish trucking.

“For every truck that we can get across commercially, that’s an airplane we don’t have to fly in. That’s very helpful,” said Jones. “That’s a major breakthrough.”

Jones has been one of the strongest supporters of northern front invasion of Iraq. Despite setbacks with the Turkish parliament, which refused to allow U.S. ground combat forces through its country, Jones thinks considerable pressure can still be put on Baghdad from the north.

“I’ve been a proponent … of the northern option in war planning, and I still think it’s very significant,” he said. “Anything we can do to help develop our presence up there is important.”

That’s because, in large part, he knows the territory.

While leading a massive humanitarian mission into northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, Jones looked down the highway to Baghdad and liked what he saw.

“Once you go through Turkey and cross into northern Iraq you have one mountain chain to go over, and then it’s a very modern, flat, high-speed axis of advance all the way to Baghdad,” said Jones.

Ordered to rescue more than 500,000 Kurdish refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein’s angry backlash after the war, Jones knew that if the Iraqi army didn’t back off he could find himself pushing a fresh assault straight to the Iraqi capital.

“It’s considerably easier, frankly, once you get past the Turkish border to get to Baghdad than it is to come up from the south,” he said.

But with only a lightly armed contingent of paratroops on the ground so far, Saddam does not appear worried that any thrust from the north is imminent

According to the latest battlefield reports, most of his highly touted Republican Guard units have shifted to southern Baghdad to await the advancing 3rd Infantry Division.

A contingent of 1st Infantry Division troops may be what it takes to divert their attention.

The Army has several companies worth of improved M-113 armored personnel carriers standing by at Ramstein Air Bases in Germany as part of its “medium-weight” Immediate Reaction Force.

That force could be flown into northern Iraq in a matter of hours.

Heavy-hitting M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles could also be flown in, but only in limited numbers, said Jones.

Reports have suggested the entire 1st Armored Division might be airlifted into Iraq. “That would take a long time,” said Jones, dismissing the option.

Even the Air Force’s heaviest lifting cargo planes are capable of moving only one tank at a time. Moving an entire heavy division by air would take months.

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