Kirkuk, April 10 (Reuters): Kurdish guerrillas scored their biggest success of the Iraq war today by capturing the key northern oil city of Kirkuk in an almost bloodless rout of government forces that sparked joyful street celebrations.
It was the first major city in northern Iraq to fall in the US-led war to oust President Saddam Hussein, and its capture sparked immediate concerns in neighbouring Turkey, worried about the possible creation of an independent Kurdish state.
It was unclear how far the Kurdish move into Kirkuk had been coordinated with US forces, under whose authority the Kurds have said they operate. In a bid to reassure Turkey, the White House said US forces would be in control of Kirkuk.
Senior Kurdish commander Mam Rostam in Kirkuk said “peshmerga” fighters, who engaged Iraqi forces in light fighting for around five hours before the city fell, moved on the city when they heard an uprising had begun.
“We were on top of the hill and we heard there was an uprising, so we just entered the city,” said Rostam, of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. But he and other Kurdish officials could not confirm an explicit US order to move.
Residents of Kirkuk, a city of 700,000 people that for the past 12 years has been under Baghdad’s control but is close to a Kurdish-ruled zone of northern Iraq, gave an ecstatic welcome to hundreds of Kurdish fighters pouring in from the east.
Local people cheered the peshmerga (which means “those who face death”) as liberators. Children swarmed out into streets, stopping cars and saying: “Thanks Mr Bush” in reference to US President George W. Bush.
There was no sign of resistance and residents said Iraqi soldiers had either laid down their arms or withdrawn south towards Tikrit.