/ 11 April 2003

Kurdish fighters sweep into Mosul

Kurdish fighters and US forces today swept into Iraq’s third city, Mosul, after Saddam Hussein loyalists abandoned one of the last strongholds of his dying regime. The advance prompted looting and celebrations in the streets.

US central command said that the entire Iraqi army’s 5th Corps had surrendered and US forces on the ground were determining whether to treat the Iraqis as prisoners of war or let them return home. Inside the city, people waved flags of the Kurdish Democratic party.

A day earlier, the city of Kirkuk and its vast oilfields, south-east of Mosul, also fell with barely a fight. Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit is now the regime’s last major stronghold. The toppled dictator’s forces holding northern cities other than Tikrit appear to have dissolved into streams of unarmed, bootless ex-soldiers trekking home. There are reports of thousands of ex-soldiers walking the roughly 250 kilometres south from Kirkuk to Baghdad.

Areas of the Iraqi capital continue to be dangerous, and there were reports of a pre-dawn firefight between Iraqi gunmen from the long-oppressed Shia people and Saddam Hussein’s fedayeen militia in the north-east of the city. Thousands of Iraqis took to Baghdad’s streets for a third day of looting.

About 95 kilometres west of Baghdad, coalition air strikes targeted a site said to be an intelligence centre for Saddam, run by his half-brother, a former head of the regime’s secret police.

There were also unconfirmed reports of the coalition carrying out tests on a suspected mobile biological weapons laboratory found in a truck, although other reports about chemical weapon finds have proven to be false in the past.

A leader of Kurdish forces in Kirkuk, who pushed into the city against US wishes yesterday, to the alarm of Turkey, said that they expected to hand over control to the US later today. Jalal Talabani, the leader of one of the Kurdish factions, told Turkey’s CNN-Turk television that all Kurdish fighters would leave when US troops arrived to provide security.

Saddam loyalists flee Mosul

The Guardian’s Luke Harding was in Mosul, and told Guardian Unlimited the city was falling. Harding said that celebrations and looting had begun in earnest.

Seeking somewhere to stay, he said he arrived at Mosul’s best hotel to find that the looters had beaten him there. ”The mattresses were being thrown out of the windows,” he said.

People in Mosul plundered the central bank, grabbing wads of money and throwing bills in the air. Mosul university’s library, with its rare manuscripts, was also sacked, despite appeals blared from the mosque minarets to the people to stop destroying their city, the Arab-language TV network al-Jazeera reported.

Gunmen, apparently Kurdish fighters, arrived at the bank and started swinging their rifles and firing into the air to force looters to leave.

”What is happening shouldn’t happen,” said one local man who was watching the looting. ”This is barbaric. This is not Saddam’s money. This is the nation’s and the people’s money.”

On the square in front of the city’s government house, people set fire to a picture of Saddam.

As the northern cities fell into coalition hands, thousands of young Iraqi soldiers abandoned their positions and walked south toward Baghdad on Friday, making their way home on a blacktop highway in the strong sun.

The unarmed men, some of them barefoot, wore civilian clothes and carried little or nothing. Some said that it might take seven days to reach their hometowns.

One man said their superiors had confiscated their documents in an attempt to keep them from deserting. He said that the troops learned of Saddam’s apparent downfall in Kirkuk yesterday.

In Kirkuk, Kurdish fighters roamed unchallenged through the streets of a city with a population of 100 000, looters emptied government buildings down to the bathroom fixtures, and statues of Saddam lay broken in the dust.

Saddam spying site bombed

Overnight, coalition warplanes bombed an Iraqi intelligence site occupied by Saddam Hussein’s half-brother and close advisor, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, who was chief of the regime’s secret police in the 80s.

US central command in Qatar said that six satellite-guided bombs were dropped on a building near Ramadi, about 95 kilometres west of Baghdad. Al-Tikriti was allegedly the chief organiser of a clandestine group of companies handling Saddam’s wealth.

Meanwhile, tests were reportedly being carried out today on a suspected Iraqi mobile biological weapons laboratory hidden in an air-conditioned truck.

The truck’s driver fled from marines, who found concealed equipment typical of a mobile biological weapons laboratory, including open jars and containers, according to a Fox News reporter embedded with the unit. Coalition forces are now covering 60% of Iraq and have completely encircled Baghdad, according to military officials.

Looting intensifies in Baghdad

Lawlessness spread across the capital today with thousands of Iraqis, including entire families, going on looting sprees. The city’s engineering and nursing colleges were targeted this morning.

Despite the toppling of Saddam, fighters still loyal to his regime continued to skirmish with US troops, although the fighting was limited to sporadic exchanges of automatic fire.

US troops worked to hold key intersections, and manned checkpoints on high alert against attacks. The dangers faced by US troops were highlighted yesterday when at least four soldiers manning a checkpoint were seriously injured in a suicide bomb attack.

There were reports that at least one soldier died in the attack near the Palestine hotel last night, but central command in Qatar was unable to confirm this.

”I feel like I’m in Beirut, Lebanon, waiting for the suicide bombers,” said Army Lieutenant Colonel Philip DeCamp. ”We know they’re holed up on the other side of the river and scattered around the city.”

Despite the pockets of resistance, Major General Buford Blount, commander of the US 3rd Infantry Division, said: ”The end of the combat phase is days away.”

Anti-war presidents meet in Moscow

Presidents of the three major opponents of the US-led war, France, Germany and Russia, were to meet today in Moscow to press for the UN to play the lead role in the reconstruction of Iraq once the war is over, a position at odds with US policy.

Ahead of the meeting, the Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, said that the UN should have a ”central role” in postwar Iraq.

Shia cleric murdered

A prominent Shia spiritual leader was assassinated at a mosque in the holy city of Najaf yesterday.

Abdul Majid al-Khoei was hacked to death at the Imam Ali Mosque, one of the holiest shrines for Shia Muslims in Iraq, his London-based al-Khoei Foundation said.

The prime minister, Tony Blair, said he was ”saddened and appalled” by the killing.

Tikrit targeted

Coalition warplanes and special forces were targeting Tikrit, Saddam’s birthplace and stronghold north-west of Baghdad.

Air strikes against Republican Guard targets were launched yesterday to ”soften up” defences before ground troops moved in. The US 4th Infantry Division was expected to advance on the city from Kuwait.

But military officials refused to confirm suggestions that the US may seek to end hostilities quickly by using the 21,000lb so-called Moab, the ”mother of all bombs”, at Tikrit.

Leading regime figures have vanished from Baghdad, and coalition officials believe they may have tried to get to the Syrian border or Tikrit, although the road to Tikrit from Baghdad is dotted with special forces checkpoints.

Full story: Tikrit is next target

Humanitarian crisis

The International Committee of the Red Cross has warned that the humanitarian impact of the war could last for many years.

A man tipped as a possible future leader of the country warned that there was ”no room” for the US in a post-war interim authority in Baghdad.

Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, said he hoped there would be full elections held in Iraq within two years. Until then, the interim authority must be formed by the Iraqi people, he said. – Guardian Unlimited Â