KIRKUK/BAGHDAD (Reuters)–Kurdish fighters took the northern Iraqi oil city of Kirkuk on Thursday as US troops fought die-hard Saddam Hussein loyalists in Baghdad.
In the holy central city of Najaf–Iraqi Shi’ite leader Abdul Majid al-Khoei was stabbed to death in an attack in the Imam Ali Mosque–a member of his family foundation told Reuters.
A day after rejoicing Iraqis greeted US forces in Baghdad following the collapse of Saddam’s once-fearsome rule there were signs that the way forward for Iraq may be difficult.
The murder of Abdel Majid and an aide–which some blamed on Saddam loyalists and others on infighting–is sure to raise tensions among Iraq’s majority Shi’ite population.
Majid was a close aide of Iraq’s leading Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani–who called on the population last week not to hinder the US and British invasion.
"An hour ago we talked to the persons who were with him at the time of the incident. They said he was martyred by treacherous hands,” said Jawad al-Khoei–Abdul Majid’s nephew.
Turkey greeted the news of the Kurdish advance in the north with alarm–immediately announcing it would send observers to the oil hub Kurds consider their capital. The White House quickly announced US forces would take control of Kirkuk.
In Baghdad–one US Marine was killed and more than 20 wounded in a four-hour battle with Saddam loyalists firing from the Imam al-Adham Mosque on the east bank of the Tigris river.
Elsewhere in the capital–looters swarmed a villa belonging to Saddam’s deputy prime minister Tareq Aziz–taking everything they could carry but leaving behind the complete works of Saddam–a book by former US President Richard Nixon–and "The Godfather” Mafia novels of Mario Puzo.
Many of the looters were from the Saddam City area–home to about two million impoverished Shi’ite Muslims. Asked why he was robbing the house–one man wordlessly pointed to his open mouth to indicate he was hungry.
"NIGHTMARE SOON OVER”
As US and British forces hunted for Saddam and his aides–President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair recorded a statement meant to reassure Iraqis they would control their own future.
"The nightmare that Saddam Hussein has brought to your nation will soon be over,” Bush said in the message that was supposed to appear on a new Iraqi TV network. While it appeared on Arab language stations it did not appear in Iraq.
Some Iraqis criticized the Americans for failing to check looting in Baghdad–and warned that US forces could face a popular uprising if they stayed in the country too long.
Mehdi al-Aibi Mansur–a Shi’ite merchant who said he was glad Saddam’s era was over–said: "People are no longer afraid…People will not be afraid to rise up against the Americans.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross said a Baghdad hospital–stretched to capacity treating war wounded–was ransacked on Thursday.
Spokeswoman Nada Doumani said the Al Kindi hospital was attacked by a group of armed looters who had stripped it of everything–including beds–electrical fittings and equipment.
"Small hospitals have closed their doors and big hospitals are inaccessible.”
JUBILATION AND ALARM
The mood in the north was triumphant. Hundreds of "peshmerga” fighters flooded into Kirkuk virtually without a fight. Iraqi Kurds consider the city–source of 40 percent of Iraq’s oil revenue–their capital. Turkomans claim it as theirs.
"It’s under control,” Mam Rostam–a commander from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)–told Mike Collett-White.
"It’s the first time I’ve been happy in 50 years,” said one exulted Kurd–Abu Sardar Mostafa.
The mood in Ankara–however–was alarm. Turkey fears Iraqi Kurds could use the city’s wealth to finance an independent state and stimulate separatist deman’s among its own Kurdish minority.
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said Washington had assured Ankara US forces would remove Kurdish fighters from the city.
Gul–declaring "there is no need for any tension,” said Turkish military observers would be in Kirkuk soon to track the US promises.
"The 173rd US parachute unit will be in Kirkuk within a few hours. Turkish armed forces observers will enter too,” Gul told NTV television.
The White House said US forces will take control of Iraq’s Kirkuk region.
A dozen US tanks and other armored vehicles were seen rolling towards Iraq’s third city of Mosul–making their debut on the northern front in the war–now in its fourth week.
US Lieutenant Mark Kitchens said elemen’s of Iraq’s Republican Guard were gathering around Mosul and Tikrit–Saddam’s birthplace and power base north of Baghdad.
US planes were bombing those formations–he added.
Kitchens said more fierce battles could lie ahead. "There continues to be resistance and the overall objective of bringing down the regime has not yet been achieved. But it will be.”
US planes–meanwhile–bombed positions held by non-Iraqi Arab fighters in the western Mansur district of the capital–close to an Iraqi secret police building–a Reuters correspondent reported.
Fighting also erupted in the Doura district housing an oil refinery in southwest Baghdad.
Reuters cameraman Ahmed Bahaddou later saw US troops collecting 21 bodies–apparently Iraqi soldiers and civilians–on a road leading from Doura to the international airport. Witnesses said other corpses had already been picked up.
The United States and Britain–which have yet to declare victory in the war–sought to reassure Iraqis.
The United States has appointed retired Lieutenant General Jay Garner to run civilian affairs in Iraq alongside the US and British military presence.
Bush and Blair promised their troops would leave Iraq as soon as a new government was established to replace the interim authority which is due to take over from the military.