For a while early Thursday, it seemed that U.S. special operations forces were racing to keep up with Kurdish peshmerga fighters who poured into this strategically important city as Iraqi resistance melted away. The key oilfields nearby appeared to be largely undamaged.
We were among the first journalists into the city, and in the first few hours, the Kurds were way ahead of the Americans. They were so thrilled that the Iraqis did not seem to be resisting that they just rushed in.
But U.S. special operations forces have now arrived in the center of town, which should remind the Kurds that this is a U.S.-led effort. That’s critically important for U.S. and Kurdish relations with the Turks, who are worried that the Kurds will seize oil-rich Kirkuk and set up an independent state, causing unrest in Kurdish-dominated parts of Turkey.
There were some civilians on the streets but more and more started to come out from their homes and cheer when they realized the Kurds were driving through the town.
There is a large bronze statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of town, about 25 feet tall, wearing a robe and with his arm outstretched. At first, people climbed on it but someone soon brought a cable and within an hour it was toppled, repeating Wednesday’s scene in Baghdad as the regime fell there.
NO SIGN OF BURNING OILFIELDS
Although the Iraqis had threatened to set fire to the nearby oilfields, among the richest in the world, there is no evidence of that from inside Kirkuk. There is no smoke on the horizon and on our way into the city we saw only one oil facility on fire. It’s not clear whether it was damaged by U.S. bombing or by the retreating Iraqis.
We passed through one former Iraqi checkpoint after another, all of which seemed to have been abandoned only a short while before. There seemed to be no resistance at all from the Iraqis.
Leading into the city, all the Iraqi positions of any significance had been hit by air attacks. But the city itself doesn’t appear to have been bombed or damaged in street fighting, although the infrastructure is run down from years of neglect.
We caught up with Kak Rozgar, the exiled former Kurdish governor, as his forces started moving street by street through the city. Kirkuk is a patchwork of ethnic groups — there are Kurdish, Turkomen and Arab sections of the city — and the Kurds are wary of going into the Arab neighborhoods where there might be some resistance.
Many of the Arabs were moved to Kirkuk by Saddam Hussein over the past 20 years, while the Kurds who lived there were forced out, as a way to “Arabize” the city. U.S. officials have been worried that returning Kurds would try to take back their former homes and shops by force, leading to ethnic violence.
While there were some Kurdish civilians intermingled with the Kurdish fighters, one Arab neighborhood we drove through was quiet.
KURD FIGHTERS TRY TO STOP LOOTING
As we proceeded toward the city center, we saw people looting government buildings and some shops, carrying out televisions, computers and carpets, and throwing them into cars and driving away.
At the government administration building, the seat of Saddam’s power in the north, Kurdish fighters were using their AK-47 automatic rifles to blast the face off of a large mosaic of the Iraqi leader.
Inside the building, many of the records had been removed.
Kurdish forces began to stop looters, forcing them to return what they were taking, in what appears to be an effort to avoid what happened in Baghdad on Wednesday.
At least some of the Iraqi leadership appears to have escaped. We went to the compound of Izeat Ibrahim al-Douri, a close confidant of Saddam’s who was appointed military governor of northern Iraq about two months ago. Nearby residents said they had seen him earlier at his home inside, and that about 50 automobiles were parked outside.
But there was no sign of him by the time we got there.
(MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in northern Iraq.)