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US troops move into lawless Mosul

Mosul (Iraq), April 12 (Reuters): US troops moved into Mosul today in the first significant American deployment in Iraq’s main northern city since troops loyal to Saddam Hussein surrendered without a fight.

But Iraq’s third-largest city remained anarchic, dangerous and rife with gunfire despite the US presence, with reports of ethnic fighting between Arabs and Kurds in which three Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas and possibly one journalist had died.

A Reuters team driving around the city today, one day after its fall, saw US troops with heavy weapons at various road junctions. The two-man posts were as ostentatious as possible, draped with the Stars and Stripes, apparently to send a message that US troops have arrived and are beginning to introduce order after looting and vandalism swept Mosul yesterday.

A crowd gathered around one post, chanting mostly pro-American slogans as well as “Iraq, Iraq”, and praise for the peshmerga, or Kurdish militia, who entered the city yesterday.

But an Arab Iraqi climbed a pillar just 20 metres away and tried to raise the flag of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

The crowd roared and ran towards him, and Kurdish peshmerga at the junction responded by unleashing a heavy and long-lasting burst of fire, sending the crowd diving for cover.

After encountering another firefight and amid Kurdish warnings that the centre of Mosul’s Arab quarter, on the other side of the Tigris river, remained volatile and dangerous with frequent shootings, the Reuters team withdrew from the city. Other foreign journalists who left the city later reported fierce fighting between Arabs and Kurds in Mosul.

A correspondent for Dubai-based Arabiya television in the northern city of Kirkuk said she had heard reports from people leaving Mosul that three Kurds and possibly also a journalist had been killed, but could not confirm reports of 20 dead.

She said the fighting apparently erupted in the city centre when the Kurdish peshmerga tried to halt looting. US troops had reportedly also been fired on and a journalist travelling with the Americans was possibly wounded or killed. There was no immediate independent confirmation of the reports.

Even away from the central Arab quarter, the scene of violent looting and torching of buildings yesterday, Mosul looked thoroughly ransacked. Waste paper, looted from thousands of offices, blew around the streets, filling the gutters. Roads and pavements were blocked by debris and broken furniture.

Smoke rose from various parts of the city tday.

US troops were seen earlier securing key intersections around the city. A Kurdish fighter said US forces had also headed to the airport, but this report could not be confirmed.

This morning, a Reuters journalist counted about 40 US military vehicles, mostly Humvee all-terrain vehicles and some trucks, entering Mosul.

In the afternoon, Reuters photographer Caren Firouz saw another US armoured convoy of approximately 15 vehicles, including around seven tanks, one ambulance Humvee, one large tanker and armoured personnel carriers heading out of the main Kurdish Iraqi town of Arbil towards Mosul.

US forces have been flying into the Harir airstrip in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq to coordinate with the Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas, who surged from their mountain strongholds onto the plain after Saddam’s forces withdrew.

Under heavy US and Turkish pressure, the Kurdish peshmerga who occupied the northern oil hub of Kirkuk on Thursday, said they would withdraw as soon as US troops arrive.

Neighbouring Turkey suspects Iraqi Kurds of wanting oil-rich Kirkuk as capital of an independent Kurdish state, which it fears would fan separatism among its own restive Kurdish minority.

Washington wants Iraq to remain whole and to prevent the country’s Kurds, who have controlled the autonomous north since the 1991 Gulf War, from breaking away.

Kurds to leave Kirkuk

Iraqi Kurd guerrillas said they would be out of the northern city of Kirkuk today as US soldiers in the strategic oil hub made their presence increasingly felt.

But the number of US troops visible in central Kirkuk was just a few dozen, not enough to secure the ethnically diverse city of some 700,000 people.

Kurdish “peshmerga” fighters swept into Kirkuk on Thursday as government forces collapsed, ringing alarm bells in neighbour Turkey which suspects Iraqi Kurds want to claim the city as capital of an independent state. Turkey fears this could fan separatism among its own Kurds.

“Yesterday we withdrew half our peshmerga forces and today we are moving the remaining forces,” said Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of two main parties in Kurd-controlled northern Iraq.

But he added that some would stay behind at the invitation of the US military to help impose order in a city where looting and vandalism broke out on Thursday and yesterday.

Mam Rostam, a senior peshmerga commander, told Reuters a committee would be formed uniting Kirkuk’s ethnic groups — including Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens — which would discuss restoring law and order and returning looted property to owners.

In the Turkish-speaking Turkmen quarter of the city, Haji Halir showed Reuters correspondents around his sister's home which had been badly vandalised.

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