U.S. Troops Help Restore Order to Kirkuk's Streets
By Karl Vick and Steve Vogel
KIRKUK, Iraq, April 12 -- Stability returned to Kirkuk today as Kurdish authorities zealously reined in looters and U.S. troops came out of their bases on the fringe of this northern city and patrolled its welcoming streets.
Cheering, applauding residents joined the half-dozen vehicles of the 173rd Airborne Brigade easing toward downtown this evening from the circle where a statue of Saddam Hussein lay toppled.
"Kiss him! It's more delicious than a girl!" one young resident cried, urging a male friend to shower even more affection on a Humvee driver.
From his perch on the side of a flatbed transport, Spec. Manny Gonzalez of Washington state signed autographs.
Coupled with a statement from Ankara that Turkey saw no need to send its own troops toward Kirkuk and the increasing exodus of Kurdish militiamen from the city, the street scene reflected a dramatic improvement in the atmosphere.
But even as truckloads of armed men left the city in the direction of Sulaymaniyah or Irbil, there were concerns about Kirkuk's future. The Iraqi Turkmen Front, a coalition of the Turkmen ethnic group claiming to represent the city's substantial -- possibly majority -- population, warned that the Kurdish parties were creating a de facto government in the city that their militias helped liberate.
"Maybe now people are happy about being liberated," said Mustafa Kemal Yaycili, a Turkmen official. "But tomorrow or the day after, that will change, because they don't want a Kurdish ruler here."
He complained about the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -- one of the two groups controlling the autonomous zone in northern Iraq since 1991 -- appropriating the homes of prominent officials from Hussein's Baath Party. "Those houses have to be held by the government," he said.
Kirkuk's Turkish-speaking residents, though perhaps targeted less virulently than the Kurds -- who besides being driven out of their homes in Kirkuk were slaughtered and gassed during the late 1980s -- felt put upon by the controlled chaos of the past two days.
"We wish Americans stay, more of them," said Ali Showkhat, a Turkmen merchant struggling to speak in English. "These Kurds -- not human! You know Ali Baba?"
Kirkuk's takeover on Thursday was followed by hours of stealing, mostly by Kurds returning to the city that Hussein's government had driven them from by the tens of thousands.
The second day of looting endangered public order and raised questions about the discipline of the Kurdish parties that had established autonomy, and largely successful experiments in democracy, in the zone protected by U.S. and British warplanes north of Kirkuk.
But the security officers the parties dispatched against looters in Kirkuk Friday night -- working so fervently they nearly caused at least one riot -- showed tangible progress inside the city today. Checkpoints stopped traffic in and out of town, and stainless steel pipes, cases of motor oil and other once-temping contraband lay all day on the roadside, after officials had pulled it from offending vehicles. No one dared pick it up.
"We've seen people take everything," said Staff Sgt. Jeremy Dillard of Omaha at the newly established traffic control point the 173rd Airborne had set up just outside Kirkuk on the highway heading east.
"Mattresses, refrigerators, small houses," he said.
"But hey," said Sgt. Jason Mahlik, of Valders, Wis., "if you'd been oppressed for so long, wouldn't you do it?"
The Kurdish militia, known as pesh merga, had poured into Kirkuk on Thursday, alarming Turkey, which strongly opposes the establishment of a Kurdish state. Turkey had threatened to send its own troops into Iraq if the Kurds took the city, with its rich oil fields nearby.
Turkey signaled its willingness today to continue overlooking the new Kurdish presence in Kirkuk and Mosul, the other major northern city. Turkish leaders have been steadily backing off previous threats to send troops into northern Iraq if Kurdish fighters or civilians entered the cities.
"There is no need at the moment for the Turkish army to enter northern Iraq," Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told reporters in Ankara.
As the 173rd moved into the city today, the remaining pesh merga fighters prepared to move out, sending truckload after truckload of armed men in billowy pants toward Sulaymaniyah, the base of the PUK. The outbound traffic of uniformed militiamen passed at least two trucks moving toward Kirkuk, crowded with men in civilian clothes. It was not clear whether they carried weapons, however, and Kurdish officials said their bargain with the Americans did not prevent the return of Kurds that Hussein's government had forced from their homes in Kirkuk.
At a conference of Iraqi opposition groups in Ankara in mid-March, the United States brokered an agreement among Turkey, the Iraqi Kurds and an Iraqi Turkmen group in which all parties agreed to "strongly discourage" the "uncontrolled movement" of people into Kirkuk. At the time, U.S. officials assured Turkey the Kurds would not be allowed to rush in and change the city's population. Instead, the United States promised to establish a commission to address the property claims of families displaced from the city under Hussein.
Gul said 15 Turkish military observers had arrived in northern Iraq and were reporting on the Kurdish withdrawal from the cities. He indicated Turkey was satisfied that the Kurds who entered Kirkuk had departed, despite reports that many Kurdish militiamen were staying to maintain order and carloads of Kurdish civilians were continuing to enter the city.
"Everyone who came from outside appears to have left," Gul said.
"We did something good today," said Spec. Mike Long of Colton, Calif. He stood guard outside Kirkuk's local government headquarters, which the U.S. contingent took over this afternoon.
"Today is a monumental thing, isn't it? Us taking over authority from the PUK and KDP?" he said, referring to the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the other governing group in the autonomous north. "Because if the PUK and KDP push too far south, they get too much territory."
Inside the government building, U.S. officers took over offices previously held by Baathists, then briefly by Kurdish militias. The Americans began laying plans to restore basic services lost when the Baathist administration fled, mostly toward Tikrit, according to residents.
"We have a lot of shortages. No electricity. No sanitation," said Said Hussein, 55. "And we need to feel the situation is secure."
But even as the streets returned to normal today -- with families crowding the sidewalks and many stores opening -- some residents remained preoccupied with the lawlessness of the past two days.
At the storefront office of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, an old man interrupted an interview to ask for a weapon with which to protect his property. After being led into a back room, he emerged with the launcher for a rocket-propelled grenade.
The 173rd Airborne Brigade assigned squads of soldiers to protect the city's hospital and a government building, and set up checkpoints on two main highways leading into town. "If you're coming here with weapons, you'll be turned away," said Col. William Mayville, the brigade commander.
But the brigade lacks the numbers to secure every vulnerable site in the city, as the scene at the natural gas plant on the north side of the city demonstrated. Kurdish militia members were helping themselves to supplies there, all smiles until the American soldiers asked them to leave.
"They weren't confrontational, but they stopped smiling and didn't wave to us anymore," said Capt. Tom McNally, commander of a surveillance team. They also ignored the invitation to leave.
McNally, operating with a small detachment that was outnumbered by the militia, called for reinforcements. The brigade's quick reaction force rolled to the scene in Humvees and five-ton trucks. The soldiers, faces painted with camouflage and M-4 rifles braced against their shoulders, jumped out of the vehicles and swept through the compound.
Looters dropped tires and boxes and scurried away. Others were allowed to take what they had in their arms, get in their vehicles and drive away. The force blocked the entrance with concertina wire but left no soldiers to guard the plant.
"The looters are going to come back as soon as we're out of here," said Capt. William "Jake" Jacobs of Oklahoma, eyeing vehicles pulling up outside the entrance. "They're lining up already."
Other pressing problems loomed. Power was out in much of the city and there were rumors among residents that the water supply had been poisoned by departing Iraqi forces. The brigade sent teams out to help those repairing power plants and would be sending a team Sunday to test water supplies.
All day and into the night, armed convoys went across the city, some flying the American flag from the antennas of Humvees. "If the boys want to show the flag, it's all right by me," said Lt. Col. Harry Tunnell, commander of the 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry.
Correspondent Philip P. Pan in Ankara contributed to this report.