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Paratroopers massing in north

Goal is to secure airfield, open up long-delayed front

KUWAIT CITY — In one of the largest paratroop drops since World War II, more than 1,000 members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade made a night parachute drop into Kurdish-held northern Iraq on Wednesday, military officials said.

Their intention is to secure an airfield where the deployment by air transport of American tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles is expected soon, opening a long-delayed northern front in the war against Saddam Hussein.

The absence of a northern front — long planned by American commanders but complicated by Turkey's refusal to accept allied ground troops on its soil — has enabled Saddam to concentrate his forces in the south, where irregular Fedayeen groups have put up stiff resistance.

That resistance continued on Wednesday. Iraqi Republican Guard forces maneuvered south of Baghdad on Wednesday night in preparation for a confrontation with American and British armies approaching the city, military officials said.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Wednesday night clarified reports about Iraqi movements: "We don't believe they are armored vehicles. They are light vehicles of some sort." He added that they are "being engaged as we find them."

Earlier reports of a column of 1,000 armored vehicles were later described by Central Command in Qatar as an error. The bombing of Baghdad resumed Wednesday night, with several big explosions rocking the center of the city. Earlier, an errant bomb or missile, it was not clear whose, crashed into a Baghdad market, killing 17 civilians and wounding many more, the Iraqi authorities said.

The government of Saddam blamed the United States, as did the people of Baghdad. At the Pentagon, officials acknowledged that an allied bomb or missile could have gone astray as surface-to-surface missile sites in the city were targeted. But Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said an Iraqi air defense missile could equally have fallen back to earth after missing its target.

International criticism of the war intensified, but President Bush appeared unconcerned by a rising chorus of such criticism and concerns. In an appearance at the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla. he said: "This war is far from over."