BAGHDAD(Reuters)–US and Kurdish forces completed their conquest of northern Iraq on Friday taking Mosul without a fight but Baghdad and other captured cities descended into anarchy.
The fall of Mosul–Iraq’s third largest city–left Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit–175 km (110 miles) north of Baghdad–as the last significant target for the United States.
US bombers continued to pound positions around the town but Saddam’s whereabouts were not known.
In Baghdad–Mosul and the southern city of Basra–law and order crumbled as pent-up passions spilled on to the streets after 24 years of iron rule by Saddam.
In Baghdad–gunmen apparently from the Shi’ite Muslim community in the east-side slums battled paramilitaries loyal to Saddam overnight–US military sources said.
Throughout the day–armed men roamed the streets–robbing buildings and hijacking cars.
In the city center this correspondent saw a youth wearing a red baseball cap back-to-front brandishing an AK-47 assault rifle and waiting for a passing car to hijack.
He let me go by but shot the driver of the next vehicle–dragged him out and drove away in the truck.
“Is this your liberation?” screamed one shopkeeper at the crew of a US Abrams tank as youths helped themselves to everything in his small hardware store.
At Saddam Hussein’s military intelligence headquarters–crowds of desperate Iraqis hacked through concrete floors looking for relatives they believed were trapped in dungeons.
But the thrill of reaching fathers–brothers–friends turned into disappointment. US soldiers said the cells were empty.
“They must be all dead–God rest their souls,” said one sobbing woman who had been searching for her brother since 1980.
TROOPS AS POLICE
Reuters journalists in Mosul saw no military clashes after Iraqi forces abandoned the city–just crowds in a frenzy of arson and plunder–stripping buildings and torching a market.
Looting also raged in Basra–where British troops on Friday killed five men trying to rob a bank. Two UN humanitarian agencies said it was not even safe to visit Basra during daylight hours.
The anarchy in Iraq’s main cities–and the murder of a religious leader on Thursday in the holy city of Najaf–highlighted the problems US troops face in restoring public order after a crushing military victory.
“The United States have neither the will nor the capacity to rein in the disorder in Iraq,” said Bruno Tertrais–senior fellow at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research.
“Today there are not nearly enough forces in the towns. Secondly–they are tired after three weeks of war.”
Analysts have also said US forces were reluctant to perform policing missions but a US officer disagreed.
“Now we are a little bit out of our comfort zone–but we’re not unprepared or untrained,” Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Chartier–commanding officer of the US Marines’ 1st Tank Battalion–told Reuters near Baghdad’s Martyrs’ Monument.
“If I need to provide security for a grocery store so they don’t get robbed–I’ll do it. On the other hand–there’s still people out there who want to kill us–so we can’t let our guard down,” he said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said it is too early to declare victory in Iraq but he said Saddam’s control of the country has “all but disappeared.”
US commander General Tommy Fran’s said Saddam and his inner circle were “either dead or running like hell.”
Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said at a briefing in Qatar US troops were issued with a list of 55 people to be captured or killed amid signs Iraqi leaders may be trying to flee abroad.
A US aircraft dropped six “smart bombs” on the residence of Barzan Ibrahim Hasan al-Tikriti–Saddam’s half-brother and former head of Iraq’s Mukhabarat intelligence service.
The results of the attack at Ramadi–110 km (70 miles) west of Baghdad–were not immediately known.
In Mosul–390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad–the US military said the entire Iraqi 5th Corps had surrendered following negotiations with Western officers–although it was not clear how many men were involved.
“There was a written document that was signed today,” said Lieutenant Mark Kitchens at war headquarters in Qatar.
Television showed hundreds of men walking out of the city at the start of a long trek south to their hometowns.
“We’re in the process of deciding whether they’ll become (prisoners of war) or just go home,” Captain Frank Thorp said.
Troops of the US 173rd Airborne Brigade moved to control of strategic northern prize of Kirkuk one day after it was captured by Kurdish guerrillas and US special forces.
US soldiers began spreading through the nearby oilfields–which provide 40 percent of Iraq’s oil revenue.
The Kurds’ withdrawal from their traditional capital is designed to calm fears in Ankara that they could use the city’s wealth to finance an independent state and stimulate separatist deman’s by Turkey’s large Kurdish minority.
TURKEY ACCEPTS US PLEDGE–REPEATS IRAQ WARNING
Turkey accepted on Friday US promises to block any bid by Iraqi Kurds to control northern oilfields–but signaled it was still ready to send its own troops if it saw a Kurdish move towards independence.
Turkey sounded an alarm on Thursday after Kurdish peshmerga fighters moved into the oil city of Kirkuk abandoned by Iraqi government forces. The Kurds had crossed a “red line,” one of many Ankara sees in its fraught relations with Iraqi Kurds.
The United States–fearing a disruptive Kurdish-Turkish clash if Ankara invaded–moved quickly to dispatch its own units to take control of the situation.
“Due to our initiatives those who entered Kirkuk have now begun to leave; those who entered Mosul will also move out,” Prime Minister Abdullah Gul told a news conference.
But he left a pointed reminder for the Americans–working with the peshmerga–of a deep-seated historic Turkish suspicion of Kurdish ambitions in the region.
“Yesterday we told (US Secretary of State Colin) Powell that if their forces are not enough–we can do it (take control) together and if neither of those work–we could do it on our own,” Gul said.
Images of the jubilant peshmerga–splashed over newspapers–touched on a raw nerve in Turkey where schoolchildren learn of perfidious Western powers conniving 80 years ago at the partition of Turkey’s heartland and creation of a Kurdish state.
The 1920 Treaty of Sevres–settling borders after World War One–created Kurdish and Armenian states partly in what is now Turkey but it was repudiated by Turkish nationalist leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Conservative Turks and others argue an Iraqi Kurdish state would re-ignite separatism in the Turkish southeast that killed 30,000 in the 1980s and 1990s. Turkish troops and armor wait on Turkey’s mountainous border with Iraq.
The Kurdish issue is a potent one in both Turkey’s domestic and its foreign policy.
Bulent Akarcali of the liberal Democracy Foundation believes Turkey and other neighbors with Kurdish minorities should accept assurances they do not seek independence–only autonomy in a new–federal Iraq.
“The Kurds have understood they cannot survive by being in conflict with Turkey–Syria and Iran,” he said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Baghdad’s medical system had all but collapsed due to combat damage–looting and fear of anarchy. It said in a statement–few medical or hospital support staff were reporting for work and patients had either fled or been left without care.
A Reuters witness said bodies were being buried in hospital gardens and corpses rotted by roadsides or in cars blown up by coalition forces as they captured Baghdad earlier in the week.
“This is going to cause a major problem for sanitation and the water system,” a US army engineer officer told Reuters.
“The water table is very low here and what goes in the ground–goes in the water,” he said.
Washington is trying to organize a meeting in the coming week of Iraqi opposition leaders to start selecting an interim government to help Iraq rebuild.
“The majority of the people attending will be from inside Iraq and there will also be attendees from outside Iraq returning to their country,” Centcom spokesman Thorp said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin–French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder met in St. Petersburg on Friday and reiterated their call for United Nations to solve Iraq’s postwar problems.