KIRKUK, Iraq—Hammered by U.S. air strikes and facing thousands of advancing Kurdish rebels, Iraqi forces Thursday cast aside their weapons and fled Kirkuk, relinquishing intact one of the Middle East's richest oil fields.
The city sits atop 10 billion barrels of proven reserves. Only one oil well was set on fire before the abrupt departure of Iraqi forces, Baath Party militia and paramilitaries loyal to Saddam Hussein.
The fall of the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul without a strong fight left only a handful of key towns and cities outside the control of U.S.-led coalition troops after 22 days of fighting.
Iraqi army troopers, Baath Party officials and paramilitary members fled Mosul on Thursday afternoon. U.S. Special Forces teams moved in late Thursday night as residents began looting shops and celebrating by firing their Kalashnikovs in the air in the mostly Arab city, Iraq's third largest.
About 2,000 Kurdish guerrilla fighters moved into Mosul's suburbs in pickup trucks, tractors, taxis and buses and prepared for a full-scale advance early Friday morning, awaiting orders from Special Forces.
The mostly Kurdish city of Kirkuk, meanwhile, exploded in riotous celebrations of its newfound freedom and outpourings of pent-up hatred for Saddam. Crowds took to the streets in cars, trucks and on foot, dancing, cheering, singing, waving U.S. flags and portraits of Kurdish leaders, kissing U.S. Special Forces and letting loose bursts of automatic weapons fire well into the evening.
"I have been waiting for this day from my birth," exclaimed Nawzad Noori as he drove his wife and two daughters past what was the headquarters of Saddam's Baath Party.
Residents stormed and ransacked government and Baath Party offices, looted weapons from military bases and freed prisoners from jails. They machine-gunned portraits of Saddam and pulled down a statute of him, right arm outstretched, in the city square.
"I have never seen anything better than this," cried Ahmad Sayeed Othman, 30, as he left the former secret police headquarters with several chairs. "It is a kind of dream."
Several blocks over, two Kurdish fighters, or peshmerga ("those who face death"), pushed a photocopying machine taken from a government office across an intersection as pickup trucks pilled high with loot roared by.
One of a handful of abandoned Iraqi Army armored personnel carriers clanked into the Square of the Arabian Knights, rifle-clutching civilians on top waving to the crowds below roaring their greetings.
At least two people were killed, and more than 14 were wounded by bullets fired into the air.
The fall of the city of 600,000 came unexpectedly a day after U.S. forces took control of central Baghdad.
Iraqi forces manning three outer defensive rings around Kirkuk had pulled back to the outskirts during more than two weeks of intense U.S. air strikes. At 5 a.m. Thursday, thousands of peshmerga and small units of U.S. Special Forces began advancing into Kirkuk from several directions. At about 11 a.m., after intense gunfire and mortar exchanges, a B-52 bomber blasted Iraqi positions with nine to 12 bombs. Another four were dropped a short time later.
Kirkuk residents and several Iraqi army soldiers who stayed behind said that under pressure from the approaching peshmerga and the air strikes, officers and Baath Party members shed their arms and uniforms, put on civilian clothes and fled.
"They just wanted to keep their lives," said Riaz Jihad Zahir, an Iraqi army conscript from Nasiriyah, as he and several colleagues strolled back into the city from their front-line positions. "We did not fight. We just retreated."
Hundreds of troops were seen on a highway east of Kirkuk, apparently making their way home. Others were believed to be headed southeast toward Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.
Once they realized they no longer faced Iraqi opposition, peshmerga from the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the two main U.S.-backed Kurdish rebel groups, streamed into the city to ecstatic greetings.
Meanwhile, a company from the 173rd Airborne Brigade just outside the city loaded up on flatbed trucks and prepared for a fight. When they learned that the Iraqis had melted away, the Americans took positions around the city and established a battalion headquarters in a building at an abandoned airfield.
Inside, papers were strewn on the floor, file cabinets were open and uniforms and gas masks were left on the floor.
Elements of the brigade captured five Iraqi soldiers within a few hundred yards of the flaming oil well. A sixth Iraqi soldier was shot by peshmerga and died.
The brigade's first task will be to secure oil fields and airfields but not go into the central city, officers said.
Kurdish officials said thousands of Kurdish fighters who flooded the city would withdraw as U.S. troops enter. It was not immediately known when the handover would take place.
"There is confusion within the city, and people are doing deeds that are not good. Now American forces are here, and we are trying to put the city under their control," said Gen. Simko Dzaee, a senior PUK commander.
The planned takeover of security by U.S. troops appeared to eliminate the possibility of military intervention by Turkey, which threatened to invade northern Iraq to prevent Kurdish control of Kirkuk.
Ankara fears that the Iraqi Kurds could harness the city's oil resources to fund an independence drive that would reinvigorate a secessionist movement among Turkey's large, poorly treated Kurdish minority.
Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke to Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul on Thursday, pledging that the United States would not permit Kurdish forces to control Kirkuk, U.S. officials said.
Powell confirmed that Turkey will station military liaison officers with U.S. military forces in the Kirkuk area, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
U.S. officials hope the move will assuage Turkey's concerns and prevent it from trying to send thousands of troops into northern Iraq.
"It is the firm U.S. position that no group should control Iraq's cities or Iraq's oil fields," Boucher said.
Kirkuk and several other Kurd-dominated towns abandoned by the Iraqi army on Thursday should prove relatively easy for the U.S. forces to administer because the Kurds now have enormous gratitude to the United States for toppling their oppressor.
They cooperated closely with U.S. Special Forces in advancing on the town. Kurdish fighters and American Special Forces soldiers earlier launched a joint operation to crush a Kurdish Islamic fundamentalist movement, Ansar al Islam.
Still, the future of Kirkuk remains uncertain. The Kurds want it as the capital of a new Kurd-dominated northern unit of a new Iraqi federation. Turkmen, who are ethnically and linguistically linked to Turkey and who claim to be a majority in the city, oppose that plan.
Kirkuk became a leading symbol of the suffering the Kurds endured during Saddam's 24 years in power. The Kurds staged repeated uprisings against Saddam's refusal to follow through on promises to give them greater rights. The Kurds are a non-Arab ethnic group that makes up 18 percent of Iraq's 25 million people.
Tens of thousands of Kurds, Turkmen and other minorities were driven out of Kirkuk in successive waves of ethnic cleansing. They have been living in poverty in the Vermont-size northern enclave controlled by rebel Kurds.
The properties of those driven out of Kirkuk and nearby areas were given to majority Arabs resettled from elsewhere in Iraq in an attempt by the regime to consolidate its control on oil-rich areas.
There were grave fears that U.S. troops who are to assume security in Kirkuk would have to intercede to stop widespread violence by Kurds seeking revenge against Arabs.
But residents said thousands of Arab "settlers" began leaving Kirkuk last week and that all had left before the city fell.
"They had no vehicles to take their stuff," said Mahmoud Ahmed Rahim, 20, as he waved to Kurdish rebels marching and driving into the city. "Everyone refused to rent them trucks or taxis."
U.S. and Kurdish officials are trying to ensure an orderly return to Kirkuk by the displaced, establishing a special commission that will adjudicate property disputes.
Only six bodies of Iraqi soldiers were recovered from the streets, hospital officials said.
Young men in civilian clothes stood watch on street corners, keeping the peace.
(Landay reported from Kirkuk, Dilanian from a position with the 173rd Airborne Division outside the city. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Mark McDonald outside Mosul and Warren P. Strobel in Washington contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.