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ARLINGTON, Va. — As the fight in Iraq shifts to the north, scant U.S. forces worked to keep up with Kurdish allies as they moved into the key city of Kirkuk, a senior defense official confirmed Thursday.

“Kurdish forces entered Kirkuk with special operations forces with them,” Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, vice director for Operations on the Joint Staff, told Pentagon reporters Thursday.

“Elements of the 173rd [Airborne] followed them and are now in the city as well.”

McChrystal said that the “elements” of 173rd soldiers he referred to amounted to “about a battalion-sized force” of troops.

Army battalions range in size from three to five companies, or 500 to 900 soldiers.

Asked whose idea it was to enter the city — U.S. soldiers or the Kurds — McChrystal declined to reply.

“The situation is fluid and has been all day” in Kirkuk, McChrystal said.

He did say that the Kurds are not acting under U.S. orders, however.

“I don’t think they are taking orders from the special operations forces,” McChrystal said. “I certainly wouldn’t want to give the impression that the special forces are commanding and controlling Kurdish fighters.”

Neither McChrystal nor Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke had any additional information about reports Thursday that Marines had found weapons-grade plutonium at a large underground facility about 10 miles southeast of Baghdad.

The report, which came from a reporter embedded with the Marines, apparently involved the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center, formerly the main site for Iraq’s nuclear program and the Osiraq reactor that was bombed by Israel in 1981.

Before the bombing, activities at the center allegedly included research on plutonium separation and waste processing, as well as other projects related to nuclear physics.

Clarke said that the U.S. military would investigate the facility, but that it would take time to determine whether it was used to make nuclear weapons components.

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