BAGHDAD, Iraq—Two more Iraqi strongholds—the northern oil cities of Kirkuk and Mosul—fell Thursday as U.S. and allied forces pursued the remnants of Saddam Hussein's army and closed in on his ancestral hometown.
At the same time, combat and anarchy flared in Baghdad and elsewhere, illustrating the difficulty of engineering a smooth transition from dictatorship to democracy:
_A suicide bomber seriously wounded four U.S. Marines late Thursday in the capital. To the south, an angry crowd hacked to death two clerics at a Shiite Muslim shrine in Najaf. To the north, looting swiftly followed liberation in Kirkuk and Mosul.
_In Kirkuk, anti-Saddam Kurdish forces swept into the city virtually unopposed, followed by U.S. troops. In Mosul, Iraqi forces and Baath Party officials simply slipped away, replaced Thursday night by U.S. Special Forces.
_Residents mirrored celebrations elsewhere, toppling statues of Saddam, plundering government offices, kissing tough-skinned U.S. Army commandos.
"It is a kind of dream," said Ahmad Sayeed Othman, 30, of Kirkuk.
Defecting Iraqi soldiers trudged unimpeded along local roads. They still wore their uniforms but they did not carry weapons. Some shouted, "Hurray America and Britain!"
U.S. officers said four Iraqi army divisions, with up to 30,000 men, signaled their readiness to surrender. The northern oil fields were almost entirely undamaged.
By early Friday, U.S. forces stood within 60 miles of Saddam's home city of Tikrit, where large numbers of Republican Guard forces and other Saddam loyalists were thought to be gathering for a last stand.
"You deserve to live as free people," President Bush told Iraqis in a television address broadcast by an Air Force C-130 flying over Iraq. "And I assure every citizen of Iraq—your nation will soon be free."
U.S. military strategists concentrated their efforts on tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers said to remain in the north. U.S. warplanes repeatedly struck their units. The Iraqis' will to fight could not be assessed.
"They are the last significant formations on the battlefield that we're aware of," said Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We are prepared to be very, very wary of what they may have, and prepared for a big fight."
Wariness was the key word on many fronts.
One day after U.S. Marines and Army soldiers—and the euphoria they delivered—raced through Baghdad, sporadic battles, looting and bloodletting raged in that city and elsewhere in Iraq.
In the capital, at least one Marine was killed and dozens wounded in fierce battles with squads of hard-core Saddam loyalists near a palace, a mosque and other places.
Illustrating the dangers that remain, a lone man walked up to a Marine checkpoint Thursday night and detonated an explosive strapped to his body, seriously wounding four Marines near the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad.
The U.S. military toll rose to at least 105 dead, with many others wounded. Air Force Maj. Gen. Gene Renuart described the capital as "still an ugly place."
Officials warned that the number of casualties could grow as U.S. warplanes and ground forces attempt to crush remaining Iraqi troop concentrations in the north and eliminate resistance in Baghdad and elsewhere.
"There's still a significant amount of work to do," said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem.
On the to-do list: determine if Saddam is dead, and find him if he is alive.
The military moved its newest and most powerful conventional bomb—a 21,500-pound monster—into the region for use against any bunker thought to be harboring Saddam or other top Iraqi officials.
Just before 2 a.m. Friday in Iraq, coalition forces targeted a building near Ramadi, about 50 miles west of Baghdad on one of the main routes to Syria. A bomber dropped six JDAMs on the building, aiming for Saddam Hussein's half-brother Barzan Ibrahim Hasan al-Tikriti, former head of intelligence for the regime and former Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations. Hours later, the coalition was still assessing the damage and it was unclear whether the attack was successful.
U.S. Special Forces in Baghdad examined the site of an air strike to determine if he was killed in Monday's attack on a residential neighborhood. One of the day's fiercest firefights was sparked by rumors that Saddam and his oldest son, Odai, were hiding in a house near the Azumiyah palace.
If they were, they escaped.
Nevertheless, in a speech subtitled in Arabic, Bush promised Iraqis that "the long era of fear and cruelty is ending. ... The nightmare that Saddam Hussein has brought to your nation will soon be over."
The broadcast, which also included a statement by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, was beamed over the same channels previously used by Iraqi state television. U.S. officials said they would broadcast news and other programming for five hours on most days. Electricity was restored Thursday to some parts of Baghdad.
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Also in the capital, thousands of looters again exploited the security vacuum created by the rapid collapse of Saddam's regime, swarming through government buildings, private businesses and other facilities.
They torched several government buildings and filled cars, trucks, wheelbarrows and makeshift carts with televisions, furniture, carpets and other booty. Among the targets: the embassy of Germany, a nation that opposed the U.S.-led invasion.
In Najaf, southwest of Baghdad, a crowd hacked to death two Muslim clerics during religious consultations and political negotiations in the shrine of Iman Ali, one of the holiest sites of Shiite Islam.
The killings of Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who was persecuted by Saddam and recently returned from exile in London, and Haider al-Kadar, a member of Saddam's Ministry of Religion, appeared to stem from political tensions.
As unease grew over the absence of authority in many regions of Iraq, U.S. officials vowed to deliver the security and stability they promised Iraqis—but they said it would take time to partly convert a military force into a temporary police force.
"All of us understand that it's better to have a safe quiet life in our neighborhoods than not," Renuart said at allied headquarters in Qatar.
Said a senior Bush administration official who requested anonymity: "Although the military campaign has gone well, there are bad omens everywhere else you look. This is going to be harder and take longer than some people thought."
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Still, some progress was reported: In western Iraq, villagers in Rutbah welcomed allied forces, asking them to stay to keep out the "death squads." The town later appointed a mayor and installed a new government, replacing Saddam's Baath Party.
U.S. military officials also warned again that tough days of fighting loom on the horizon, particularly in northern Iraq.
"There's still a long way to go," Renuart said. "We're not sure when a military victory will be complete."
In northern Iraq, Kurdish fighters, backed by U.S. Special Forces, streamed into Kirkuk in a convoy of more than 100 cars, pickup trucks and other vehicles, including a garbage truck.
Kurdish families ran out of their homes to cheer and throw roses at the fighters, known as peshmerga. Officials at the Pentagon said a battalion-size force—about 700 soldiers—of the 173rd Airborne Division entered Kirkuk later Thursday.
The cities of Mosul and Kirkuk have been subjected to heavy allied bombing in recent days, and thousands of peshmerga massed for an offensive. In response, Iraqi officers began stripping off uniforms Wednesday night and leaving.
When Iraqi officials and Baath Party members were gone, residents indulged in an orgy of looting against ministry and police buildings, the Baath headquarters, an armory and government warehouses. Some peshmerga participated in the looting.
The arrival of the 173rd Airborne was partly intended to placate Turkish officials. Turkey fears that control of northern oil fields might encourage Iraqi Kurds to declare an independent state, which in turn could inspire Kurds living on the Turkish side of the border to rebel.
Secretary of State Colin Powell assured Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul that the United States—rather than the Kurds—would control Kirkuk and that Turkey could send a small number of monitors to the region.
Back in Baghdad, troops were clearing land mines when "localized pockets" of Iraqis launched ambushes in several locations, Renuart said.
U.S. troops struck the Azumiyah palace and the home of a "senior Baath Party member" after hearing reports that regime leaders were gathered there, he said. The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force also defeated Iraqi units after heavy firefights on the Baghdad University campus.
Americans also came under fire from Iraqis hiding in Baghdad's Imam Mosque. The mosque was damaged, but not destroyed during the battle, said Army Maj. Rumi Nielson Green, a Central Command spokeswoman.
"They trapped us in an ambush," Nielson Green said. "We're not going to sit there and die. It's always been our prerogative to try to defend ourselves."
(Peterson is with the Marines in Baghdad; Landay is with Kurdish forces in northern Iraq; Merzer reported from Washington. Also contributing were Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Sandy Bauers aboard the USS Harry S. Truman; Jessica Guynn at the Pentagon; Mark McDonald from Mosul; Peter Smolowitz at allied headquarters in Qatar; and Juan O. Tamayo with the Marines in Iraq.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064):
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