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With stunning speed and barely a fight, Kirkuk and its oil fields changed hands Thursday. By sundown, Kurdish fighters roamed unchallenged through the streets, looters had emptied government buildings down to the bathroom fixtures and statues of Saddam Hussein lay broken in the dust.
Kirkuk's fall brought the northern front within nearly 60 miles of Saddam's hometown of Tikrit -- the possible last refuge of his rule.
And it left Iraq's No. 2 oil region almost fully intact. Coalition leaders had feared retreating Iraqi forces might set the fields ablaze, but only one well fire raged near Kirkuk. It was not known if it was caused by fighting or sabotage.
U.S. special operations forces were with the Kurds when they entered the city of 100,000 people, said Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff. They were soon joined by elements of the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said he had promised Turkey the Kurds would pull out entirely and be replaced by U.S. troops -- easing Turkish fears that the Kurds could use Kirkuk as a step toward an independent state, perhaps inspiring separatists among Kurds in Turkey.
Kirkuk "will be under American control," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Still, this was an extraordinary day for Iraqi Kurds, a moment akin to the fall of the Iron Curtain. Kurds consider Kirkuk one of the capitals of their ethnic homeland -- which has been divided since the 1991 Gulf War, when parts of Kurdish land came under Western protection.
Kirkuk and the northern city of Mosul -- Iraq's third-largest city -- were left under Baghdad rule and many Kurds fled to north as Arab settlers moved in.
Lt. Col. Robert Waltemeyer, commander of a U.S. special forces unit in the area of Dohuk, north of Mosul, said U.S. forces would enter Mosul "in a matter of hours or days." He said the United States considered the Kurdish action in Kirkuk premature; in Mosul, he said, the Kurdish peshmerga militiamen will stay on the outskirts.
But the Kurds who took Kirkuk were unapologetic, and exultant.
"We are one again. Finally, we are one," said Kareem Mohammad Kareem, a Kurd who joined crowds cheering the toppling of a statue of Saddam in Arab dress. "I am 50 years old, but my life just started today."
Kurdish fighters, aided by U.S. Special Forces, roared south in ragtag convoys: pickup trucks, private cars, military transport and some motorcycles. Kurds often stopped to grab Iraqi guns or claim jeeps or other equipment -- even a garbage truck -- left behind.
But there was almost no one left to fight. Hundreds of thin and exhausted Iraqi soldiers trudged from Kirkuk to surrender, having abandoned their weapons and units. Some even waved at passing Kurdish fighters heading to battle what was left of the Kirkuk defenses.
"We expected to come into town fighting Iraqis," said a U.S. Special Forces soldier who could not give his name under military rules. "They were gone."
Remaining troops and Saddam loyalists, including officials of his Baath Party, fled before coalition forces reached the outskirts. There were few signs of battle. The bodies of three Iraqi soldiers were scattered around Arafat Square, dominated by a statue of Saddam on a platform representing an oil well.
A few hours later, men ripped a heavy chain from around the statue, looped it around the figure and hooked the chain to a commandeered fire truck. They cheered as it tumbled down with just a slight metallic creak.
"Liberty!" yelled 18-year-old Tariq Abid Mohammad. "Freedom. USA. Thank you, George Bush."
Many families -- Arabs as well as Kurds -- stood outside their homes in disbelief and joy as the Kurdish fighters entered the city. One woman threw a handful of daisies. Nowrooz Ali cradled her 2-year-old daughter, Aya, as crowds used stones and bricks to smash a mural of Saddam.
At the local offices of the state oil company, people carted away chairs, carpets, air conditioners, ceiling fans and TV sets. At the main post office building, the bathrooms were stripped of their faucets. Outside, men used hammers and crowbars to try to open a safe they believed held dollars. Nearby, someone pushed two couches down the sidewalk.
Cars were laden with the plunder: refrigerators, bookcases, chairs. Sometimes the vehicles themselves were the prize. A bus-size ambulance sped out of the city, apparently driven by looters.
Gas flowed for free at state-run service stations. A bank office was set ablaze.
Kurdish leaders bedded down in stately homes abandoned by Baath Party figures.
In Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said his country had U.S. approval to send military observers to Kirkuk to make sure Kurdish fighters eventually withdraw from Kirkuk.
Turkey had said it could send troops into northern Iraq to protect its interests -- a move that could put Washington in the middle of a potential Turkish-Kurdish conflict.
Barham Salih, one of the Kurdish leaders, said Kurds insist that all victims of "ethnic cleansing" in Kirkuk be allowed to return home. But he stressed the need to continue dialogue with Turkey and others to "prevent any party from causing chaos."
"Kirkuk represents the climax of the suffering of the Kurdish people," he said. "We are for peaceful coexistence. ... We want to make Kirkuk an example of coexistence."
Many believe Saddam's remaining backers headed for Tikrit, about 65 miles southwest of Kirkuk. Coalition aircraft have hit the Republican Guard's Adnan Division in Tikrit and roadblocks tried to prevent Iraqi leaders from reaching the city to mount a last stand, U.S. officials said in Qatar.
In addition, remnants of Republican Guard divisions and regular army units have "coalesced into composite forces" throughout the north, including the area from Kirkuk to Mosul, said Capt. Frank Thorp, a Central Command spokesman.
McChrystal, the Pentagon general, said the U.S.-led forces are going after the remaining Iraqi fighters in the north "aggressively."
A task force of about 300 soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division, based in Germany, was deployed to northern Iraq on Thursday to beef up the effort there.
"We are prepared to be very, very wary of what they may have and prepare for a big fight," McChrystal said.
But options to operate in northern Iraq were running out. Southeast of Kirkuk, on the Iranian border, Kurds also swept unopposed into the strategic city of Khaneqin.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)