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Iraq: U.S., Kurds Capture Another Key Northern City

Prague, 11 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. troops and Kurdish fighters are reported to be in control of Iraq's third-largest city of Mosul, one day after U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters took control of another key northern city, Kirkuk.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last night that Mosul residents are welcoming the troops: "Kurdish forces and U.S. forces, in small numbers, are in the process of moving into Mosul, and everything -- again, there is good communication with the Turkish government -- and, to my knowledge, at last hearing, it is an orderly process and the forces that are entering are being welcomed by the people."

Hoshyar Zebari, a spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Party, told the French news agency AFP today that Iraqi troops loyal to Saddam Hussein are negotiating a surrender. And Reuters correspondents says Kurdish fighters are now in the city center of Mosul.

Yesterday, Kurdish fighters -- and a small number of U.S. special forces -- captured oil-rich Kirkuk to the southeast, amid scenes of jubilation reminiscent of the fall of Baghdad two days ago.

The move caused concern in Turkey. It's worried that Kurdish control of the city could encourage Kurds to form an independent state in the region.

But Mam Rostam, a senior Kurdish commander, said today his forces will hand the city over to U.S. troops as soon as they arrive to provide security -- probably later today.

U.S. forces are now trying to assess what forces remain in and around Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. Major General Stanley McChrystal said yesterday: "We are trying to see whether it's a combination of special Republican Guard elements, maybe some remnants of other forces, maybe some Ba'athists, Saddam Fedayeen; trying to judge their strength, trying to judge to what extent they have an integrated air defense, although we think we've taken most of that down. I wouldn't -- if anyone starts throwing around 'Fortress Baghdad' or 'Fortress Tikrit' -- I don't think we're prepared to say that at this point. But I think we are prepared to be very, very wary of what they may have and prepared for a big fight."

But it's not all been good news.

A suicide bomber last night detonated explosives at a U.S. checkpoint in Baghdad. According to reports, at least one soldier was killed and four others injured.

Looting is also still rampant in the capital, with residents ransacking and setting fire to ministries and officials' private homes.

Red Cross officials said one hospital in Baghdad was attacked by armed looters and that others have closed.

International aid officials criticized U.S. and British troops for failing to curb the looting, saying it threatens to deepen the humanitarian and health problems in Iraq.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday: "We also saw the scenes of jubilation [in Iraq] but, of course, when you think of the casualties, both military and civilian, the Iraqis have paid a heavy price for this, and we've seen scenes of looting, and obviously law and order must be a major concern."

In Al-Najaf yesterday, there was another reminder of the dangers of the lawlessness now engulfing many parts of Iraq.

A senior Shi'a cleric working with coalition forces was hacked to death inside the city's main Ali mosque -- the holiest shrine for Shi'ite Muslims.

Abdul Majid al-Khoei had returned to Iraq from exile in London only last week to help restore order in the city. He had gone to the mosque in a gesture of reconciliation to meet Haider Kelidar, a cleric loyal to Saddam Hussein.

It's not clear what exactly happened. Some reports said another Shi'a faction was angered by Kelidar's presence. Others suggest the assailants were supporters of a Shi'a group whose leaders have not been allowed to return from abroad.

Whatever the case, the crowd attacked both men and hacked them to death with swords and knives.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. is deeply saddened by al-Khoei's death.

In other news today, the U.S. military said it bombed the residence of Barzan Ibrahim Hasan al-Tikriti, Saddam's half-brother and the former head of Iraq's Mukhabarat intelligence service. The building near Ramadi, 110 kilometers west of Baghdad, was also believed to be an operations center for the intelligence service.

Also today, three world leaders opposed to the war are to meet in St. Petersburg for talks on postwar Iraq. The meeting brings together Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Jacques Chirac, and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

All three say the UN should have a central role in postwar Iraq. The U.S. says the UN will play a "vital" role, but that has been interpreted to mean a largely humanitarian function.

Deputy U.S. Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said yesterday that the UN "can't be the managing partner, it can't be in charge" in postwar Iraq. He said the U.S. wants to avoid a situation in which Iraq might become what he called a "permanent ward of the international community."