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Coalition makes key advances in northern Iraq

Pentagon: Baghdad, full of resistance, 'still an ugly place'

Smoke billows Thursday from a fire near the Al Wazir Mosque in Baghdad.
Smoke billows Thursday from a fire near the Al Wazir Mosque in Baghdad.

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NORTHERN IRAQ (CNN) -- Kurdish pesh merga fighters, backed by U.S. Special Forces, easily seized the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk on Thursday, while coalition warplanes pounded deposed President Saddam Hussein's hometown and Iraqi leaders in Mosul offered to surrender.

In Baghdad, which U.S. Central Command characterized as "still an ugly place," U.S. troops skirmished with remaining Iraqi forces and were attacked by a suicide bomber.

A battalion from the 173rd Airborne Brigade has reinforced U.S. Special Forces and Kurdish forces in Kirkuk, Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said at Thursday's Pentagon briefing.

"The situation [in Kirkuk] is fluid, and has been all day," McChrystal said.

"Truckload after truckload" of Kurds flooded into the city after the U.S.-backed pesh merga -- ethnic Kurdish guerrilla fighters -- entered the city without a shot being fired by Iraqi defenders, who had apparently headed south toward Tikrit, a Baath Party stronghold and Saddam's birthplace. (Full story)

Kurds dominated the scene in Kirkuk's central square, where they jubilantly followed in the footsteps of Iraqis from the south to Baghdad by toppling a statue of Saddam -- this one in tribal garb -- and dancing on its broken pieces. (On the Scene)

Locals were cheering U.S. troops, who were keeping a "low profile," reported CNN correspondent Jane Arraf.

The pesh merga control nearly 300 villages in northern Iraq.

With the Iraqi forces gone, residents began looting the area -- including a Pepsi soft drink factory said to be owned by Saddam's son, Uday.

CNN correspondent Kevin Sites ran across a large force of Iraqis outside Kirkuk -- apparently soldiers who had shed their uniforms and started off north, away from Tikrit.

Many of those were fleeing the El Haleed military compound, a frequent target of coalition bombers.

Late Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Kurdish troops and U.S. forces from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade had entered Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, and were "being welcomed by the people."

The commander of the Iraqi army's 5th Corps and the governor-general are expected to surrender to U.S. special operations troops in the Mosul area, U.S. military sources told CNN on Thursday. Details were being worked out between the Iraqis and U.S. forces, officers at U.S. Central Command told CNN.

Mosul was one of the coalition's prime targets for the bombing campaign. In the past 24-hours, the coalition flew 1,750 sorties, 550 of them strike sorties, Pentagon officials said. Coalition aircraft launched what officials called their heaviest wave of bombing along the burgeoning northern front early Thursday.

The 5th Corps' combat strength was estimated at 30,000 troops when the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began March 20, but it is unknown what toll heavy airstrikes and desertions have taken on its three infantry divisions and one mechanized infantry division, U.S. military sources told CNN. Still, the corps' surrender would remove a significant obstacle to coalition control of the city.

In another U.S. troop movement, the first elements of the 4th Infantry Division are expected to begin moving from Kuwait into Iraq within a few days. It is not yet clear if they will move to northern Iraq or help secure Baghdad.

Kurdish gains worry Ankara

Turkey is concerned about possible long-term Kurdish control of Kirkuk and the surrounding area, an economic powerhouse for Iraq because of its oil wealth. Turkish leaders fear that if Kurds get control of the city they might take steps to form an independent nation, giving rise to unrest among Turkey's Kurdish population.

In a phone conversation with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell invited Turkish military observers to Kirkuk, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said. (Full story)

Kurdish factions have appointed a governor of the city, but he has not yet been able to make his way into Kirkuk, CNN correspondent Ben Wedeman reported from inside the city.

Although U.S. airstrikes have targeted sites around the city in recent days, U.S. military officials said Tikrit remains a "stronghold" for fighters loyal to Saddam.

Celebration and resistance in Baghdad

While many in the Iraqi capital celebrated the fall of Saddam's regime, U.S. forces fought what coalition officials called "pockets of resistance" throughout the day Thursday.

One Marine was killed and 22 wounded in a firefight at a mosque where U.S. Marines had learned senior Iraqi leaders might be meeting, said Capt. Frank Thorp, a Central Command spokesman. (Full story)

Shortly before 8 p.m. (12 p.m. EDT), a suicide bomber walked up to a military checkpoint in central Baghdad and detonated explosives, wounding four U.S. Marines and killing himself, a Marine spokesman told CNN.

U.S. military officials told CNN they're concerned about such tactics from Iraqi "irregular" fighters and people from other countries who might have responded to Saddam's call for a "jihad."

With most Iraqi officials out of sight, there was no word of Iraqi civilian casualties Thursday. The latest figures, two days old, were 1,252 Iraqi civilians killed and 5,103 injured, Abu Dhabi TV reported, citing Iraq officials. Baghdad did not release military casualty figures.

Since Operation Iraqi Freedom began 105 U.S. and 31 British troops have been killed.

"Baghdad is still an ugly place," said Maj. Gen. Victor Renuart, Central Command's director of operations, with many parts either still controlled by fighters loyal to Saddam or harboring such resistance.

The coalition controls all the bridges in and out of Baghdad, he said.

Coalition leaders and international aid groups are concerned about the chaos taking hold in places where Saddam's regime has been toppled.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Health Organization said Thursday that Iraqi hospitals fear warfare and looting will keep fearful workers and sick patients at home, and impede the delivery of badly needed supplies to many parts of the country. (Full story)

Aid groups also acknowledged that coalition forces have cleared the way for assistance to reach the Iraqi people. The U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division found four warehouses of food near Hillah in central Iraq Thursday and began distributing it to Iraqi civilians, said Maj. Gen. Victor Renuart, Central Command's director of operations.

Other developments

• Coalition warplanes dropped six precision-guided bombs early Friday on a building in Ramadi, about 55 miles [88 kilometers] west of Baghdad, where Saddam's half-brother and adviser, Barzan Ibrahim Hasan al-Tikriti, was believed to be living, Central Command said.

• In Najaf, prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Sayed Abdul Majid al-Khoei was killed Thursday in an attack that began inside the Imam Ali Mosque, a family friend told CNN. (Full story)

• Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said Thursday his inspectors are ready to go back in to Iraq once peace is re-established.

• With control of the nation's airwaves secured, videotaped messages from President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were broadcast to the Iraqi people. The Pentagon plans to start distributing a newspaper Saturday, U.S. officials said. (Full story)

• Residents of Amarah, southeast of Baghdad, led U.S. Marines to a soccer stadium Thursday where Saddam's regime had hidden an Al Samoud missile, CNN's Bob Franken reported. (Full story)

-- CNN correspondents Rula Amin, David Ensor, Tom Mintier, Diana Muriel, Walter Rodgers, Brent Sadler, Martin Savidge, Barbara Starr and Ben Wedeman contributed to this report.

EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN's policy is to not report information that puts operational security at risk.

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