U.S. Forces Enter Kirkuk Unopposed

By Steve Vogel
KIRKUK, Iraq, April 10 -- U.S. Army troops rolled unopposed into this key northern city tonight, securing an airfield and an oil facility after a Kurdish uprising ousted Iraqi forces.

Two battalions from the 173rd Airborne Brigade moved south from positions in the Kurdish autonomous region, passing a landscape filled with victorious Kurdish militia waving AK-47s in the air and abandoned Iraqi armored vehicles.

Prepared to fight Iraqi forces, the light infantry unit found itself battling nothing but cheering crowds and a huge traffic jam caused by the convoys carrying more than 2,000 troops in over 100 military vehicles.

At the Kirkuk military airfield, taken earlier in the day by Kurdish pesh merga militias, the arriving U.S. soldiers found abandoned guard shacks with uniforms on the floor. "They dropped their uniforms, changed into civilian clothes, and bolted," an Army officer said. "They didn't even bother to turn off the lights."

The commander of the U.S. force said the goal of the move into Kirkuk was to preserve its critical oil industry and bring stability to a highly uncertain situation. The United States did not want Kurds to occupy Kirkuk, fearing that such a move would incite Turkey to send troops into northern Iraq, but proved powerless to prevent it.

"I'm principally worried about the oil [facilities], making sure nobody takes them over or destroys them," said Col William Mayville, commander of the brigade. "We want to make sure they're available for a post-Saddam government."

Iraqi forces were largely cleared from Kirkuk today by the Kurdish forces, but Iraqi units of significant strength remain just south of the city, U.S. officers said.

The 173rd had been preparing to launch an attack toward Kirkuk next Tuesday, backed by M1 Abrams tanks that are being flown into the Bashur airfield in the Kurdish autonomous zone.

The collapse of the Iraqi regime's power and Kurdish advances forced U.S. commanders to scramble and move a force toward Kirkuk immediately, unsure of what kind of resistance they would meet. Tanks rolled from Bashur to Irbil this morning to join the operation, but at the last moment they were left behind because of concerns that they would break down without proper equipment on hand to repair them.

"This is going to be a fly by the seat of your pants type thing," Capt. William Jacobs, commander of C Company of the 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry, told his platoon leaders as they prepared to move. "This could be a war, or we could walk across like it's a Sunday picnic."

The U.S. advance in the north was decidedly more the latter. Plans for a cautious, phased movement to Kirkuk went out the window as the convoy found complete freedom of movement on Highway 2 leading from Irbil to Kirkuk.

It was a military invasion preceded by a victory parade. Thousands of happy Kurds lined the road leading out of Irbil, slowing the convoy to a crawl where the crowds pressed forward. Some waved banners or AK-47s in the air, and the occupants of one black sedan threw candy at the passing Humvees.

"It's like we just won the World Cup," said Jacobs, an Oklahoman who commanded the battalion's lead element from a Humvee without doors.

At the airfield here tonight, officers who had expected a deadly fight to reach Kirkuk were incredulous at the turn of events. "I didn't think we'd get here this quickly, cruising right in here," said Maj. Bob Hanley. "Wow."