KIRKUK, IRAQ — The soldiers awoke in the shadow of Kirkuk, and knew it would be their last day in the army of Saddam Hussein.
It was 8 a.m. when Kurd fighters came toward the post held by Iraqi soldiers. Amir Sahib Aziz, a corps officer who had signed a pledge to defend this area to the death, told his men there was no reason to resist another day.
"The pesh merga came and they called out to us and said, 'We are your brothers and your countrymen. If you give up, we will not hurt you,' " said an exhausted Mr. Aziz as dozens of Iraqi soldiers, sunbaked and scraggly, crowded around to see how their immediate higher-ups would explain their surrender.
The spontaneous collapse of Kirkuk offered a telling window on the degree to which Iraqis were unwilling to fight for a regime that bred much fear and little loyalty.
Thousands streamed into Kirkuk during the day, some riding a toppled statue of Hussein. They whacked it with crowbars, sang victory songs, and held US flags.
Much of the world worried that when Saddam Hussein fell from power, Kurds would seize the oil-rich city Kirkuk.
Instead, Thursday, it was a jubilant mix of people - Kurds and Arabs, Turkmen and Assyrians, Christians and Muslims - who took over the city and celebrated the downfall of the regime. They also cheered an unexpectedly rapid success that virtually spared this city of 2 million and averted fears of a bloody northern front where the Kurds and Turkey, which is deeply suspicious of Kurdish ambitions here, might clash.
Kurdish fighters scrambled to fill the vacuum left by the fleeing Iraqi military leadership and Baath Party officials. Government buildings were looted, with people carrying off chairs, light fixtures, and odds and ends of a regime that, people said, took far more from them.
"Frankly, they stole so much from us that this is a kind of revenge we deserve to take for ourselves," says Hussein Ahmed Khan Derwish, standing on a corner as a teenagers wheeled away an air conditioner.
The Kurdish pesh merga fighters came in trucks equipped with megaphones and mounted machine guns. Instead of bullets, they fired off instructions. The Iraqi soldiers put down their weapons and walked out with their hands up. By midmorning, several hundred of them were being leisurely escorted up to the strategic Iraqi bridge town that leads to Kirkuk, waiting for open-top trucks to cart them away.
"We were just sitting there and wishing the pesh merga would come," says Aziz. "There was no point in resisting. We knew that if we'd fight them, we'd probably be killed."
The Hussein regime, it is clear, was not one that many Iraqis have been willing to die for. But that is exactly what many soldiers, it appears, had to promised to do in the weeks before the war again. The surrendering soldiers here say that on Mar. 18, they were all forced to sign pledges that said: "I will not run away. I am ready to die here," recalls Aziz.
"We all signed, and then we all left our posts together," says Mohammed Ali Ibrahim, a young Iraqi soldier from Baghdad. "We had no choice, - they made us sign in order to scare us."
Thursday, fear seemed to be melting away along with the last remnants of Iraqi defenses. By midday, Kirkuk fell to Kurdish forces, sparking wild celebrations.
Among the carloads of average Kurds streaming into Kirkuk was a middle-aged couple who had left their home here 10 days ago, expecting heavy fighting and fearing for the safety of their seven children.
"When our children learned to speak, the first words they had to learn to say was 'Saddam,'" says Zarifa Sherif Mohammed, a mother dressed in a long maroon housedress and a white head scarf. "I feel like it's my birthday. I'll start my life again from this point."
Her husband, Jawad Yabaa Hassan, says he wants to see Saddam and the senior Baath Party leadership brought to justice. "The little people worked for Saddam because they were afraid. The big people, we must take our revenge on them."
It was not yet noon when large white trucks came to take the Iraqi soldiers away. They piled in willingly, not asking where they would be taken. The Iraqis looked thin and bedraggled next to the triumphant Kurds, who beeped and cheered as they soared past.
"It's all over," says Aziz. "We are happy to have our freedom. No, happy is too small a word for what I feel." He pauses. "We are all very tired. I just want to see my family. It's been 80 days since I've seen them. I would pay with my life just to get to Baghdad again."
In the late afternoon, the swell of traffic heading to Kirkuk turned thick and triumphant, taking on a carnival-like atmosphere. A long convoy of US soldiers in Humvees headed towards Kirkuk from Irbil, waving to other passersby. Pesh mergas headed into Kirkuk on the backs of pick-up trucks and lorries. But mostly, the roads were packed with family cars and taxis. Many of them held Kurdish families returning home, years after being pushed out by Hussein's Arabization policy.
Little girls in sequined Kurdish dresses popped out of the sunroofs of cars. Boys bought ice cream pops sold by vendors smart enough to prepare for the virtual street party on the main roads leading to Kirkuk.
As cars piled up and people piled out to see what the holdup was about, an old man stepped on a landmine, a reminder that the dangers - and perhaps the war itself - had not fully passed.
But even as Kirkuk erupted in celebration, there was heavy fighting to the northwest in another key oil city, Mosul, where US forces were headed in Abrams tanks. Southeast of Kirkuk, on the Iranian border, Kurds and US forces swept unopposed into the strategic city of Khaneqin, and routed Iraqi soldiers at Altun Kupri, 20 miles north of Kirkuk.
Despite the advances and the heavy US presence in Baghdad, pockets of the capital and a large swath of north-central Iraq remained outside coalition control. Pentagon officials say US forces will focus their attacks on those regions in the days ahead, including Mr. Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, about 100 miles north of the capital.
There were some pockets of fighting early Thursday. Iraqi soldiers took refuge in an oil refinery, betting that US airplanes would never try to bomb it, but fled soon after. By late afternoon, Kirkuk's skyline had one burning oil well - putting to rest fears that Saddam Hussein would try to destroy the city's oil wealth when his power began to slip.
Repeating scenes played out elsewhere in the country, Iraqis looted offices known to be headquarters for the military and the Baath Party, and set fire to a branch of the Rasheed Bank. But an officer sent to guard one former Iraqi military compound said the chaos will soon give way to security.
By nightfall, the buzz of celebrations was almost deafening. With music playing and horns blaring, a crowd clambered over the remnants of Kirkuk's largest statue of Hussein. Men and even women in Muslim head scarves took turns at taking blows at the fallen effigy of Saddam.