KIRKUK, Iraq — From the hills, pickup trucks loaded with men and Kalashnikov rifles sped down the mine-speckled highway, dropping onto the flatlands, zooming past oil slicks and curls of barbed wire and screeching into this city, where gunfire echoed overhead and the dream of tens of thousands of Kurds stood shining in dusty heat.
"Kirkuk is liberated."
"Kirkuk is liberated."
The battle was barely finished, but the trucks kept coming. They fanned through the streets, greeted by boys with bandoliers and boomboxes. People ran from homes and children watched as statues of Saddam Hussein were yanked from their pedestals. A city lost had been reclaimed.
The fall of Kirkuk came Thursday morning. After an uprising organized by a Kurdish underground, thousands of Kurdish fighters backed by U.S. Special Forces entered the city as the Iraqi army vanished, melting away beyond the smoke of a single oil fire.
Kirkuk is the Kurdish promised land. In a decade-long ethnic-cleansing campaign, Hussein's Baath Party exiled 100,000 Kurds from this city. The return of many came as contrails from U.S. B-52 bombers laced the sky.
Some were greeted by families they had not seen in 10 years. They met in streets and alleys. They ate kebabs. They drank beer. They shot a ton of lead into the air.
And they looted. Cars and trucks and donkeys were laden with stolen things. One boy carried a kitchen sink; another walked through the crowd with a ceiling fan and a gas mask.
Anyone looking slightly American was kissed. This spontaneous outpouring -- far more impassioned than scenes that greeted U.S. and British forces in Baghdad or Basra -- reflected the deep gratitude many Kurds feel for the United States, which has protected them with U.S. and British warplanes for the last 12 years.
Meanwhile, the Arabs in town, fearing retribution over Hussein's treatment of Kurds, stayed in their neighborhoods, peeking around corners and looking out windows as Kurdish fighters waved Kurdish flags until sunset.
The Baath Party headquarters in the Iskan neighborhood was smoking and ammunition stored inside was popping. Three bodies lay outside in the dirt. They were those of party officials who battled members of the Kurdish underground. They were killed because they refused to surrender. One, Abu Ihab, looked as if he had been struck by an ax. The two others were shot.
The Kurds in the neighborhood were glad. Someone said the dead men were responsible for the disappearance of 18 Kurds. The bodies were covered with dirty cloths and left in the sun.
"The people captured the Baath central committee," said Ali Hussin Ali. "We killed and many ran away."
"He was still fighting and he killed two Kurds," Salih Star said of one of the dead men. "He kept fighting and he wouldn't give up and we had to kill him."
"We think there are more dead Baath people inside the headquarters," said Mohammad Zabir. "But the bullets keep exploding and we can't go inside."
Around a few corners and down the street, a crowd watched as a man climbed up a statue of Hussein. He tied a hose around the neck and attempted to pull it down. More men joined him. One of them spray-painted Hussein's face red. The crowd cheered. Another man, in a sharp Middle Eastern rebuke, smacked the sole of his shoe over Hussein's head.
"Down, down Saddam," the crowd chanted. "Yes, yes Bush."
A U.S. Special Forces team watched and then moved on. Hundreds of U.S. troops were massing outside the city to keep order.
There was little violence in the streets. There was a lot of dangerous driving as men and boys carrying guns and grenades swayed in the backs of trucks and celebrated. Girls in colored dresses skipped on the sidewalks. Most hotels were closed; no one expected the city to fall so quickly.
Kirkuk -- about 25 miles from the autonomous Kurdish-controlled enclave of northern Iraq -- has long been a place of misery. The Kurds attempted to capture it in the 1991 uprising after the Persian Gulf War. They failed and it fell under Hussein's control. But while northern Iraq prospered, Kirkuk, Iraq's richest oil city, producing 800,000 barrels a day, remained poor.
"We lived as animals," said Shunasi Hassan, chief operator at the North Oil Co., a sprawling place of tall grass and wells. "I make less than $60 a month. I have a family of three children, one in engineering school. Do you think that's enough?"
Hassan is an Arab. He said he wasn't worried about Kurdish revenge. Anyone who lived in Kirkuk, he suggested, knew that most anyone else, whether he is Arab, Kurd or Turkmen, didn't live much better.
"Why should I be scared?" he asked. "All our problems will now be solved."
Salim Gridi was less optimistic. An Arab from Baghdad, he moved to Kirkuk nine months ago for a construction job. As Kirkuk changed hands, Gridi boasted that if he had a rifle he too would have fought against Hussein. Such sentiment didn't help him, he said, when three Kurds punched him in the mouth and stole his Oldsmobile.