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Already, U.S. and British warplanes have moved to a more aggressive posture while enforcing Iraq's no-fly zones, the northern and southern regions from which Iraqi planes are banned. In the past, when Iraqi forces fired on allied planes, the reply came in attacks on guns and missile batteries. That has changed. Now the allied planes are attacking command-and-control centers, communications nodes and the fiber-optic network that links Iraq's air-defense system. "We're responding differently," says a Pentagon official, "hitting multiple targets when we're fired upon--and they're tending to be more important targets."
What's more, the U.S., safe in the northern no-fly zone over which Baghdad has no control, is beginning to work more closely with the Iraqi Kurds, who are starting to get their often tangled act together. A few weeks ago, the two leading Iraqi Kurdish political groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (K.D.P.) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (P.U.K.), started to carry out a historic accord designed to end their years of often violent rivalry and to launch a period of working together.
In March and May of this year, according to a senior Kurdish official, American teams from the Defense Department and the CIA visited Iraqi Kurdistan to investigate Ansar al-Islam, a terrorist group that has been linked to al-Qaeda and that has its base in caves on the border between Iraq and Iran. (The Americans didn't hide their presence; they drove black Grand Cherokee SUVs with communications gear on the roof, not exactly common in Kurdistan.) The U.S. teams promised the Kurds that they would be back, and they have kept their word. U.S. officials tell TIME that within the past few weeks the CIA has opened two stations in Iraqi Kurdistan, one in Salahaddin, the principal town controlled by the K.D.P., and one in Suleimaniyah, the P.U.K.'s stronghold. "They're basically there as liaison" between Washington and the Kurdish leadership, says the Brookings Institution's Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA and National Security Council staff member on Iraq issues.
U.S. officials say there are no plans to use the Kurds the way the Northern Alliance was used as a proxy force fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Though the "free" Kurds claim to have 100,000 fighters ready to help the Americans and its allies if a war starts, a senior U.S. official in the region says the Kurdish forces, called the peshmerga, are poorly equipped. Jalal Talabani, secretary-general of the P.U.K., says he has never received arms or ammunition from the Americans. But the CIA, intelligence officials say, will use its new stations in the north to win over to the U.S. side those Kurds who live south of the liberated zone and are now loyal to Baghdad.