Grateful Iraqis surrender to Kurds

THE last Iraqi shell crashed into the road to Kirkuk as elevenses were being taken in the village of Altun Kopri. Within minutes, hundreds of Iraqi soldiers - southern conscripts dumped on the northern front in the hope they would fight to the death out of fear - flooded out of the trenches dug around the oilfields.

As news spread, tens of thousands of cars packed the road from Irbil to Kirkuk, each one filled to the gills with roaring, bouncing people. The rush to the "Kurdish Jerusalem" had begun.

Iraqi surrenders provoked scenes more akin to family reunions than battleground defections.

One wretch, barely able to walk, recoiled when peshmerga tried to help him to a Red Crescent ambulance to give him some water. "Musselman, Musselman," they shouted and he collapsed into their arms.

"All of us want to surrender," said Hassan Sharat, 30. "I am sick from tiredness, the officers kept me awake for three days to fight but I am also very happy. This is the end of the regime.

"I have suffered from being forced to be in the army for five years," he said. "Now, for the first time, I feel no fear."

A senior Kurdish commander, Mam Rostam, said that peshmerga fighters, who engaged Iraqi forces in light fighting for about five hours before Kirkuk 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 Mr Rostam, of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan .

At a main roundabout near the centre of Kirkuk, about 300 people toppled a huge statue of Saddam Hussein, as they have done in Baghdad and other places where Iraqi forces have been driven away.

People climbed the 20ft statue, one man beating the top of its head with a sledgehammer and others standing on the plinth waving a Stars and Stripes flag.

Outside a burned government security office, people were dancing in the streets and pushing carts full of appliances they had looted from inside.

"[Iraqi soldiers] all ran away this morning like cowards. Thanks to God and the Kurds in Iraq and Bush, they were driven out, there’s not one left," exulted one man, Abu Sardar Mostafa. "It’s the first time I’ve been happy in 50 years."

"You must excuse our rude and boisterous behaviour," said Abdul Rahman Dali. "We are free, we must be allowed to exercise our feelings."

"We thank the West for what it is doing for us," said Khabat Dolat, 43, an engineer.

"We are now free from a dictator who destroyed our homes, our professional aspirations and our nation."

Barefoot, but carrying their boots in their hands, the Iraqi conscripts claimed the news of the collapse of Saddam’s regime came after the officer class and the death squads that prevented defections ran away at dawn. Grabbing radios, they tuned in to the BBC World Service and Radio Monte Carlo and found out the truth: that Saddam was no longer the polar force in Iraq.

Kurds pressed flowers and cigarettes into the Iraqi soldiers’ hands and herded them on to lorries and garbage lorries. In the Kirkuk oilfields, no torch had lit an environmental and economic catastrophe.

On hilltops overlooking Kirkuk from the east, United States special forces, who had pinpointed targets for aircraft, were packing away their equipment, their job apparently finished.

A convoy of Kurds and special forces roamed looking for pockets of Iraqi troops, only to get lost and to come under light fire. After beating a hasty retreat, the convoy regrouped, where one US army ranger admitted his focus was less defined than he would like. "I sure am doing a lot of roaming around in these parts," he said, wrapping up his map. "I am not sure I should be doing so much."

Looting was in evidence but it was not an overwhelming factor. "We are not looting," said Alum Wali. "Saddam took everything from us. Now we are taking back what is ours."

In contrast to the south and centre of the country, the void in authority in Kirkuk, and no doubt in the third city of Mosul in the coming days, is being filled by the Kurdish governing parties, who erect their flags and mount the portraits of leaders, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, on official buildings and army bases.

Peshmerga guerrillas, trusty Armalites in hand, are ideally placed to police the cities in a way that the US marines, infantry and cavalry are not.

The infrastructure of the Baath party is being replaced by the Kurdish parties, a factor that should reduce looting and chaos. It could, however, trigger the intervention of Turkey, which is threatening to invade if the Kurds take control of the oil-rich cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.

In a momentous 24 hours, the Kurds also captured the town of Khanaqin, near the Iranian border .

Late yesterday morning, a phalanx of Kurdish soldiers in pick-ups and lorries accompanied by US forces in Humvees swept into the city and occupied major government buildings without a fight. Crowds welcomed the convoy with flowers and sweets.

Days of heavy aerial bombardment and news that Baghdad had all but fallen under the control of US forces had apparently prodded the Baath party officials ruling Khanaqin to disappear on Wednesday night.

The residents of the oil-rich city woke to find that the government officials who had terrorised them had disappeared into the night.

"Yes, Mr Bush! Yes, Mr Bush!" they chanted, their cries of joy nearly drowned out by a cacophony of car horns and celebratory machinegun fire.

To the north-west, US Abrams tanks rolled towards Iraq’s third city, Mosul, making their debut on the northern war front, according to reports.

B-52 bombers left wide vapour trails in the skies above the city throughout the day, circling to attack any remaining troops and launching at least ten bombs at targets of opportunity.

Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, said last night that small numbers of US troops and Kurdish forces were moving into Mosul after signs of Iraqi troop surrenders in the area.

Mr Rumsfeld said: "There appears to be an opportunity for the regular Iraqi forces to turn in their weapons and no longer pose a threat.

"To my knowledge, at last hearing, it is an orderly process and the forces that are entering are being welcomed by the people."

After a day spent in their homes, the citizens of Mosul were also reported to have begun an uprising under the cover of darkness.

"People are staying indoors out of the path of trouble during the day," said Omar Osman, a senior Kurdish official. "But their anger has surfaced tonight."

Mr Osman said troops from the rival Kurdish factions in the autonomous north were waiting for coalition orders to advance on the city. "We won’t move until coalition troops arrive to lead us," he said. "But soon we will be washing our boots in the waters of the Tigris."

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