In the worst friendly fire incident of the war so far, two US F-15 bombers killed 17 Kurdish and American soldiers and a BBC translator yesterday when they mistakenly attacked an Allied convoy in northern Iraq.
The explosions ripped apart the vehicles, the heat of the blast so intense that it melted the zinc of their batteries. The bombs killed or wounded most of the Kurds and Americans travelling towards the front line near the village of Dibagah. John Simpson, the BBC world affairs editor, travelling in the convoy, said just after the bombs had struck: “This is a scene from hell. All the vehicles are on fire. There are bodies burning around me, there are bodies lying around, there are bits of bodies on the ground. This is a bad own goal by the Americans.” A piece of shrapnel cut off the legs of Kamran Abdurazaq Mohammed, a BBC translator, who bled to death before he could be brought to hospital. Mr Simpson was slightly wounded in the leg. The bombs also critically wounded Wajy Barzani, brother of the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and the commander of the Kurdish special forces, who was flown to a hospital in Germany. Grief-stricken Kurds besieged the hospital in the Kurdish capital, Arbil, where some 45 wounded have been taken.
The slaughter on the road above Dibagah will reinforce doubts about the ability of US pilots and ground controllers to accurately identify targets on the ground in a war in which the Iraqi authorities say 1,253 civilians have been killed, almost all by bombs and missiles.
The disaster happened on the top of a bare ridge above Dibagah from which the Iraqi army had just withdrawn at 12.30pm yesterday. Kurdish soldiers known as peshmerga and US special forces were advancing to cut the road between Kirkuk and Mosul supported by an intense bombardment by US planes overhead.
The convoy stopped at a point on the ridge from which one can see the plain below through a dusty haze. A US special forces commander apparently saw an Iraqi tank firing about a mile away. He called for an air strike.
About 50 yards from where the convoy was destroyed, I could see an elderly Soviet-made T-54 tank lying abandoned in a deep ditch beside the road. The American pilot may have thought this was the target he was meant to attack. The bombs gave the Kurds and Americans, who were sitting in or standing around their vehicles, little chance. Every piece of metal was pierced by shrapnel and the roof of one vehicle had been blown 50 yards down the road. There were dried pools of blood on the road where it had not been blackened by the scorch marks of the explosion.
Yesterday marked the opening of a concerted Kurdish and American offensive up and down the front in northern Iraq. The bombing, the sound resounding off the mountains, was much heavier than I have heard since the start of the war. The offensive at Dibagah, about 20 miles south of Arbil, the Kurdish capital, was to cut off Mosul from Kirkuk and capture part of the the ridge which overlooks the Kirkuk oilfields.
It is often very difficult to tell exactly where the front line is and the peshmerga sometimes have only have a hazy idea of how close they are to the enemy. Earlier in the day, I was driving down a long, straight road north near the village of Dubardan, noting nervously that a peshmerga outpost I had seen the day before was no longer there and hoping the Kurdish soldiers had gone forward rather than backwards. I also wondered how the pilots of the US planes we could hear overhead could possibly understand the complex jigsaw puzzle on the ground, with some positions captured and recaptured in hours. American special forces are now operating more openly and in greater numbers with the Kurds than at any time before. Small-arms fighting is limited and the peshmerga are generally advancing to take over Iraqi positions that have been abandoned after heavy air strikes, their artillery and tanks destroyed.
But the US and the Kurdish leadership are also very nervous that an all-out ground offensive by the Kurds could provoke a Turkish invasion. The peshmerga sometimes suddenly withdraw on orders from above, often to the chagrin of their own men. Last week Wajy Barzani, critically wounded yesterday, was at the front angrily telling his men not to attack until told to do so.
The Iraqi army shows signs of beginning to disintegrate in the north, though it may fight for the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, which are full of troops and strong points. Near Dibagah, Makdid Mohammed Ali, a Kurdish commander with a sniper’s rifle strapped to his back, said: “There was little Iraqi resistance. They have pulled back to a mountain further south.” The driver of the ageing T-54 abandoned beside the burnt-out Kurdish and American convoy had evidently decided it was an unequal contest and gone home.
The Kurds have an incentive to press forward as far and as fast as the US will let them. The areas into which they are advancing were previously largely inhabited by Kurds. They were ethnically cleansed over the past 30 years by Saddam Hussein and many are now returning to land where their fathers and grandfathers lived but which they have never seen. Each day, they are closer to their families’ former homes.