Kirkuk (Iraq), April 11 (Reuters): US soldiers began securing oilfields and the airport in the key northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk today as lawlessness and tensions between ethnic groups appeared to be on the rise.
Kurdish “peshmerga” fighters in the city since Thursday, when Iraqi forces fled, have agreed to leave, but a senior Kurdish official said this would only happen when US troops could ensure stability — a task that could take days.
“Peshmerga from outside the city will go out as soon as there are sufficient numbers of US military personnel,” said Barham Saleh, prime minister of one of two main factions controlling the Kurd-majority enclave in northern Iraq. “More and more American troops are coming in.”
But, by this evening, they were only in evidence in strength at an oilfield outside the city and at the airport.
Reuters correspondents saw around 20 US troops securing Kirkuk’s huge oilfields and a further 50-60 picking their way carefully across the grounds of a military airbase. Those at the airport were armed with rifles, machine-guns and mortars, and passed near ramshackle warehouses where hundreds of Iraqi bombs were stacked in wooden casings.
But their presence on the streets of the city was minimal, and thousands of soldiers may be needed to keep the peace in the ethnically-diverse city of 700,000. Turkey expressed alarm at the chaotic entry of hundreds of peshmerga into Kirkuk yesterday, fearing Iraqi Kurds could use the city’s wealth to finance an independent state and stimulate separatist demands among its own Kurdish minority.
The US military said today Iraq’s entire 5th Army Corps had surrendered in the northern city of Mosul.
“The commander of the Iraqi 5th Corps communicated it to people on the ground,” Captain Frank Thorp, spokesman at US Central Command war headquarters in Qatar, said.