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April 12, 2003
 
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Kurds Still Operating in Kirkuk Amid Turkey Fears

Reuters


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By Mike Collett-White

KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) - Kurdish "peshmerga" fighters were busy imposing order in the northern Iraqi oil hub of Kirkuk on Saturday, one day after Turkey said it had won U.S. assurances that they had withdrawn from the city.

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

Reuters correspondents saw dozens of Kurdish fighters trying to curb looting in Kirkuk by setting up road blocks on roads into the city and turning back people they suspected of wanting to plunder buildings.

Piles of metal bars, containers, food and equipment were under guard on the sides of the road at the eastern entrance to Kirkuk, collected from looters trying to leave. In the city center, Kurdish police directed traffic.

"The city has to be controlled to prevent the looting," said senior Kurdish commander Mam Rostam, who says his troops rushed into the city on Thursday to "fill the vacuum" left by the sudden withdrawal of forces loyal to Saddam Hussein.

U.S. soldiers have begun to arrive in the city and have secured oilfields and the airport. But their presence on the streets was barely visible early on Saturday.

"There are some Americans here and there are more on the way and all the peshmerga will leave Kirkuk as soon as possible," Omar Fatah, a senior Kurdish official, told Reuters.

SADDAM'S COLLAPSE

Iraqi government forces collapsed in Kirkuk on Thursday after sustained U.S. air bombardments.

The peshmerga from the nearby Kurd-controlled enclave in northern Iraqi then rushed in, apparently without the full approval of the small U.S. force in the area after Iraqi government defenders walked away from their posts. The peshmerga were initially met with jubilant celebrations, but the atmosphere turned sour as people began looting and vandalizing property belonging to Saddam's Baath party.

Some of the city's ethnic groups, including Arabs and Turkish-speaking Turkmen, are also concerned at reprisals by Kurds. Tens of thousands of Kurds were forced to leave Kirkuk under Saddam's program of Arabization.

In some districts life was returning to normal on Saturday, with shops raising their shutters and markets beginning to fill.

Turkey has said in the past it is willing to risk the fury of its ally the United States by sending a large military force into northern Iraq to prevent any Kurdish independence bid.

Iraqi Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani said on Thursday he had ordered his peshmerga out of Kirkuk by Friday.

Ankara is to send military observers to monitor the Kurds' activities in both Kirkuk and Mosul, the biggest city in northern Iraq.

Copyright 2003 Reuters News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

 
 
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