KIRKUK, Iraq – With stunning speed and barely a fight, Kirkuk and its oil fields changed hands Thursday. By sundown, Kurdish fighters roamed unchallenged through the streets, looters had emptied government buildings down to the bathroom fixtures and statues of Saddam Hussein lay broken in the dust.
Kirkuk's fall -- coupled with indications that Mosul, the largest city in the north, might quickly follow -- brought the northern front within nearly 60 miles of the Iraqi president's hometown of Tikrit, the possible last refuge of his rule.
Thousands of young Iraqi soldiers walked south from Kirkuk toward Baghdad Friday, telling CNN they were making their way home after being abandoned by their commanders.
The men, some of them walking barefoot, trudged down a blacktop two-lane road through farmland, carrying bedrolls and wearing civilian clothes under a bright blue sky and amid flocks of sheep.
One man said his military superiors had confiscated the soldiers' documents in an attempt to keep them from deserting earlier. He said the troops learned on Thursday while in Kirkuk of Saddam's apparent downfall.
At the same time, an endless stream of cars jammed roads into Kirkuk as Kurds flooded into the city they consider one of the capitals of their ethnic homelands but which many fled after 1991. Many of those returning wore suits and ties and other nice clothes as if headed to see long-lost relatives or friends.
The capture of Kirkuk also left Iraq's No. 2 oil region almost fully intact. Coalition leaders had feared retreating Iraqi forces might set the fields ablaze, but only one well fire raged near Kirkuk. It was not known if it was caused by fighting or sabotage.
The United States had asked Kurdish forces not to enter Kirkuk, a senior Pentagon official said Thursday, amid U.S. concerns not to stoke Turkish fears over swelling Kurdish power. But when the peshmerga fighters went in anyway, some U.S. troops were sent to accompany them.
U.S. special operations forces were with the Kurds when they entered the city of 100,000 people, said Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff. They were soon joined by elements of the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said he promised Turkey the Kurds would pull out and be replaced by U.S. troops -- easing Turkish fears that the Kurds could use Kirkuk as a step toward an independent state, perhaps inspiring separatists among Kurds in Turkey.
Jalal Talabani, leader of one of the factions whose forces entered the city, told the Turkish television channel CNN-Turk that all Kurdish fighters would leave by the end of Friday.
Mosul, Iraq's third largest city and the next prize in the north, appeared about to follow Kirkuk. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said small numbers of U.S. and Kurdish forces were entering Mosul and "being welcomed by the people."
Gen. Babakir Zibari, a Kurdish commander, said remnants of the Baath Party and Iraqi military commanders in Mosul have offered to surrender, but only on condition that they be granted amnesty, and if coalition bombing stops.
Lt. Col. Robert Waltemeyer, commander of a U.S. special forces unit north of Mosul, said U.S. forces would meet Friday with Mosul leaders to establish secure zones. Unlike Kirkuk, Kurdish fighters will stay on Mosul's outskirts, he said.
The entry into Kirkuk marked an extraordinary day for Iraqi Kurds, a moment akin to the fall of the Iron Curtain.
After the 1991 Gulf War, the Kurdish lands were divided -- part becoming autonomous under Western protection. Kirkuk and Mosul were left under Baghdad rule and many Kurds fled to north as Arab settlers moved in.
"We are one again. Finally, we are one," said Kareem Mohammad Kareem, a Kurd who joined crowds cheering the toppling of a statue of Saddam in Arab dress. "I am 50 years old, but my life just started today."
Kurdish fighters, aided by U.S. Special Forces, roared south in ragtag convoys: pickup trucks, private cars, military transport and some motorcycles. Kurds often stopped to grab Iraqi guns or claim jeeps or other equipment -- even a garbage truck -- left behind.
But there was almost no one left to fight.
"We expected to come into town fighting Iraqis," said a U.S. Special Forces soldier who could not give his name under military rules. "They were gone."
Remaining troops and Saddam loyalists, including officials of his Baath Party, fled before coalition forces reached the outskirts. There were few signs of battle. The bodies of three Iraqi soldiers were scattered around Arafat Square, dominated by a statue of Saddam on a platform representing an oil well.
A few hours later, men ripped a heavy chain from around the statue, looped it around the figure and hooked the chain to a commandeered fire truck. They cheered as it tumbled down with just a slight metallic creak.
"Liberty!" yelled 18-year-old Tariq Abid Mohammad. "Freedom. USA. Thank you, George Bush."
Many families -- Arabs as well as Kurds -- stood outside their homes in disbelief and joy as the Kurdish fighters entered the city. One woman threw a handful of daisies. Nowrooz Ali cradled her 2-year-old daughter, Aya, as crowds used stones and bricks to smash a mural of Saddam.
At the local offices of the state oil company, people carted away chairs, carpets, air conditioners, ceiling fans and TV sets. At the main post office building, the bathrooms were stripped of their faucets. Outside, men used hammers and crowbars to try to open a safe they believed held dollars.
Cars were laden with the plunder: refrigerators, bookcases, chairs. Sometimes the vehicles themselves were the prize. A bus-size ambulance sped out of the city, apparently driven by looters.
Gas flowed for free at state-run service stations. A bank office was set ablaze.
Kurdish leaders bedded down in stately homes abandoned by Baath Party figures.
In Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said his country had U.S. approval to send military observers to Kirkuk to make sure Kurdish fighters eventually withdraw from Kirkuk.
Turkey had said it could send troops into northern Iraq to protect its interests -- a move that could put Washington in the middle of a potential Turkish-Kurdish conflict.
Barham Salih, one of the Kurdish leaders, said Kurds insist that all victims of "ethnic cleansing" in Kirkuk be allowed to return home. But he stressed the need to continue dialogue with Turkey and others to "prevent any party from causing chaos."
"Kirkuk represents the climax of the suffering of the Kurdish people," he said. "We want to make Kirkuk an example of coexistence."
Many believe Saddam's remaining backers headed for Tikrit, about 65 miles southwest of Kirkuk. Coalition aircraft have hit the Republican Guard's Adnan Division in Tikrit and roadblocks tried to prevent Iraqi leaders from reaching the city to mount a last stand, U.S. officials said in Qatar.
In addition, remnants of Republican Guard divisions and regular army units have "coalesced into composite forces" throughout the north, including the area from Kirkuk to Mosul, said Capt. Frank Thorp, a Central Command spokesman.
A task force of about 300 soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division, based in Germany, was deployed to northern Iraq on Thursday to beef up the effort there.
Southeast of Kirkuk, on the Iranian border, Kurds also swept unopposed into the strategic city of Khaneqin.
A small group of troops belonging to the Badr Brigades, an Iranian-based Shiite Iraqi opposition group, entered the city first, in the dark, followed by a force of up to 4,000 Kurds, witnesses and officials said.
Kurdish forces riding pickup trucks with mounted artillery were supported by U.S. special operations forces. Crowds welcomed the convoy with flowers and candy.
"We were waiting for this day since 1991," said Salman Ajaf, a college student.