KIRKUK, Iraq — This newly liberated city was a scene of joy and jubilation as the people took to the streets, letting out a collective breath they had been holding for 35 years.
It had been a mostly bloodless capture by the PUK and KDP peshmergas. It started this morning, and the Iraqi defenders just gave up or melted away, leaving the Kurdish fighters — with U.S. support — to walk practically unopposed into the city.
By the time I got there around 3 p.m., the looting had begun. A government shopping center was gutted and scorched from fire. Young men walked the sidewalks carrying ceiling fans, chairs and anything else they could pick up and carry off.
But in a pleasant surprise, on the way back to Arbil, the peshmergas had set up checkpoints and were relieving people of looted material. Freydoon and Delshad were both pleased to see this. I was too.
But it seemed the majority of the Kirkukis were in the city’s central park where a large statue of Saddam Hussein stood. The scene yesterday in Baghdad was replayed as the crowd noosed the statue with steel cable and pulled it down. There were no American troops to help them this time, and that seemed to suit the Kurds just fine. I’m told the Arabs and the Turkomen of Kirkuk are less than pleased by the Kurds’ ascendency, but I couldn’t verify that. No one wanted to spoil the day with words of ethnic strife. That can wait.
After the statue was felled, the crowd torched a portrait of Saddam that adorned the main government building. Like the Iraqi regime under the firestorm of the last, lightening-quick three weeks, phoof! It was gone.
Majad, a friend of Delshad’s shook my hand warmly and then whispered in my ear, “Saddam, goddammit!” Then he looked and me and grinned like a schoolboy who had just gotten away with something. Then he asked me if the war was over. I didn’t understand his question, until Delshad told me that the Kirkukis didn’t know about the situation in Baghdad. The paranoia of Saddam’s regime was such that no one trusted the radio and they hadn’t seen the images of the crowd pulling down the statue of Saddam in the capital because the Iraqis had banned satellite dishes. So isolated was Kirkuk that people begged to use my satellite phone so they could call the outside world. I accommodated as many as I could, but it wasn’t enough.
Inside the government building, there was nothing but broken glass on the floor and a defaced mural of Saddam Hussein. Oh, and many, many milling peshmergas. This was their victory and they knew it. There is a light American presence here, outside the city, but inside, the peshmergas are the new sheriffs in town.
And none too soon. People were being executed as recently as yesterday, said Jalal Khoshna, a peshmerga commander who was born in Kirkuk.
“I feel like I am newly born!” he exulted.
The city had been one of the ones hardest hit by Saddam’s program of “Arabization,” which would displace Kurdish families and give their homes and property to Arab families settled from the south. There are up to 300,000 internally displaced people, as the United Nations clinically calls them. Many of them live in squalid refugee camps outside the Kurdish cities such as Arbil or Suleimaniya.
But in a vivid homecoming scene, Khoshna described how he returned to his family’s old home in Kirkuk only to find an Arab family living there. He said they were afraid of him and his troops, but he reassured them they could live there until they found a new home. Then he would like his house back, please.
We’re now on our way back to Arbil. I’m collecting my stuff and heading south toward Baghdad. I will post pictures very soon that can tell the rest of today’s extraordinary story.