Coalition forces seize Kirkuk

As sporadic fighting continued in Baghdad, the US emphasis shifted Thursday to remaining Iraqi strongholds in the north.

Coalition forces claimed their largest prize to date in northern Iraq, seizing Kirkuk, anchor of Iraq's richest oil fields. Hundreds of Kurdish fighters poured into the city after American B-52 bomber raids helped trigger the Iraqis' collapse.

Residents mimicked events in Baghdad a day earlier by quickly pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein. US forces also entered the northern city of Arbil. Turkey announced it would send military observers into the area to make sure Kurdish fighters withdraw from Kirkuk.

Despite the rapid victories achieved by coalition forces this week, US military officials caution that the fighting is far from over in the half of the country still controlled by Iraqi forces. "There's a long way to go still," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Victor Renuart, director of Central Command operations.

Still to come is the north-central region of Iraq between Baghdad and Kurdistan that includes the last two major cities not yet under coalition control: Mosul, which is 240 miles north of Baghdad, and Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein where Iraqi forces are expected to make a last stand. Tikrit is located 110 miles north of Baghdad.

Iraq's remaining military units appear to have regrouped and are positioning themselves close to the "green line" frontier with the Kurdish-controlled zone of northern Iraq. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers said Wednesday as many as 80,000 Iraqi troops are in the area between Baghdad and the Kurdish territory.

US planners say the military is applying "lethal pressure" on those forces, including the heaviest air raids thus far unleashed on the northern front.

In Baghdad, one marine was killed and 20 wounded during fighting at a palace and a mosque in Baghdad. The most intense firefights occurred around the Imam Mosque, near where Central Command says regime leaders were trying to organize a meeting. Heavy fighting continued throughout the evening on the east side of the Tigris where marines faced pockets of resistance.

The city is still "an ugly place," Renaurt said, with the strongest pockets of resistance remaining on the west side. Southwest of Baghdad, American forces captured more than 100 tanks in the last 24 hours near Karbala.

In western Iraq, US special forces worked to seal off the border with Syria in order to prevent senior Iraqi officials from escaping.

But in much of the south and central Iraq, the US military's emphasis has already shifted from fighting to security and planning the rebuilding of destroyed infrastructure. American forces are inspecting bridges, power lines, and water supplies, Renaurt said.

"The long era of fear and cruelty is ending ... the future of your country will soon belong to you," President Bush said in remarks televised throughout Iraq.

Wire service reports were used in this story.

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