CHAMCHAMAL, Iraq (Reuters) – U.S. warplanes have been heard flying near the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk early on Thursday followed by the distant thud of explosions, as hundreds of Kurdish fighters advance toward the major oil hub.
Buoyed by the collapse of President Saddam Hussein’s government in Baghdad, “Peshmerga” fighters were eager to reach Kirkuk, which is still held by the Iraqi administration.
“Saddam and his men are finished, or will be finished soon. They’re surrounded now, and God willing I’ll be in Kirkuk tomorrow,” said Rafiq Baway, a local Kurd who heard the news from Baghdad on satellite TV in the city of Sulaimaniya.
Kurdish commanders and politicians have been careful to deny that their forces would move on Mosul and Kirkuk alone, but have not ruled out doing so under U.S. command and as part of the Iraqi opposition.
“We are not intending to attack Kirkuk,” said senior Kurdish commander Mam Rostam in Chamchamal, a Kurdish-controlled town some 22 miles east of Kirkuk.
“I am sure the people of Kirkuk will welcome us because they have suffered so much under this regime,” he told Reuters.
Neighbouring Turkey is particularly concerned about the prospect of Kurdish forces seizing oil-rich Kirkuk, because it could embolden its own Kurdish minority to renew their fight for self-rule.
MORE FIGHTING AHEAD
Both U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and U.S. Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. military Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Washington on Wednesday that much work still needed to be done in northern Iraq.
“We still must secure the northern oil fields, which have probably been wired for destruction, as was the case with the southern fields,” Rumsfeld said.
“There are about 10-plus regular (Iraqi) Army divisions left in the north and perhaps as much as one brigade of a Republican Guard infantry division left up there,” added Myers.
“They have been subjected to bombing and will continue to be dealt with that way for some time.”
In Chamchamal, this correspondent heard around a dozen flights between midnight and 1:30 a.m. local time on Thursday and several explosions. It was not clear exactly where the bombs were dropping.
U.S. special forces have been seen in Kurdish positions close to Kirkuk and other Iraqi positions along the northern front in recent weeks, helping fighters and heavy B-52 bombers to pinpoint their targets.
Both Kirkuk and Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city 100 miles to the northwest, have been pounded by U.S. warplanes.
Troops have also been flown in to the area, although their numbers are considered too small to take major cities unless Iraqi government forces there collapse.
Hoshiyar Zebari, political adviser to Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Massoud Barzani, said U.S. forces, allied with Kurdish fighters, took the Maqloub mountain, some nine miles northeast of Mosul, early Wednesday.
The mountain, which had been used by Iraqis to defend Mosul, was considered their biggest victory yet in the war in northern Iraq.