KIRKUK, Iraq - The road to Kirkuk was littered with discarded Iraqi army boots.
Defenses around the Iraqi-held city crumbled yesterday after assaults by Kurdish forces, a brief uprising by Kirkuk's residents and a wild flight by thousands of Iraqi soldiers, who abandoned their positions and scrambled south toward President Saddam Hussein's bastion of Tikrit.
As they fled, many shed much of their military equipment, clothing and, perhaps, any remaining hope of defeating the U.S.-led Kurdish fighters here. Those guerrillas, the pesh merga, roared into the city considered the Kurdish spiritual capital from several directions, guided by U.S. Special Forces.
Long hours of joy, confusion and looting followed, as many Kurds - whose villages were burned and people slaughtered under Hussein's regime - sought vengeance against his ruling Baath Party, its symbols and instruments of power.
Once Baghdad fell Wednesday, the Iraqi army units defending Kirkuk could not hold out.
"The city was coming to a boiling point," said a Special Forces soldier from Virginia, who identified himself only as Joe. "The population could see victory coming."
Still, the speed of the advance seemed to shock everyone, not least the victors themselves.
Thousands of American-led pesh merga, which means "those who face death," launched a series of assaults against entrenched forces in the east around dawn yesterday, pushing them to within five miles of the city within a few hours.
The Kurds regrouped, prepared for another assault, and crested the next ridgeline. But the final battle was over before it began. The Iraqi regulars had vanished.
The Kurds made for Kirkuk, where events familiar from Baghdad the day before would soon unfold. Here, they came for a long-awaited prize: the rich oil fields of the north.
Kirkuk, too, had its Hussein statue, this one in military uniform, standing on a pedestal shaped like an oil derrick, perched in the middle of a fountain. Using the thick chain that formed a decorative barrier around the fountain and an old Iraqi firetruck, the pesh merga and Kirkuk residents worked together to haul the statue down.
A dozen yards from the toppled statue lay the body of a two-star Iraqi general, once a symbol of authority and fear. Now, his soldiers had vanished. His tanks and trucks sat abandoned. A passer-by scornfully tore off and pocketed one of his epaulets.
Witnesses said the officer had been shot and killed while fleeing the city's civilian uprising. None of the handful of Kurds loitering near his body knew his name.
`They chickened out'
Kurdish troops had met little resistance in their advance from the northwest, along the road between Irbil and Kirkuk. Their day had begun with scores of the hardened militia fighters mustering at the village of Altun Kubri, captured the evening before. As dawn broke, Kurdish scouts discovered that many of the Iraqis had melted away.
"The surprising thing is that the Iraqis could not resist us," said a pleased Kurdish commander. "They chickened out." Nearby, squatted seven Iraqi prisoners, surrounded by their deadliest foes. One burst into tears.
A few miles south, several hundred weary, dirty and emaciated Iraqi prisoners of war trudged north.
"There is no army now," said Khadair Abbas, an Iraqi private. "There is a complete collapse. Our officers are running. So we ran, too."
`Happy for this day'
Minutes later, the Kurds pushed south into the Iraqi town of Dibis, the site of an oil refinery with storage tanks painted in camouflage colors. In front of Baath Party headquarters, the mostly Kurdish residents of the city hit the portrait of Hussein with their shoes, tossed cinderblocks at it and swatted it with pieces of wood.
The place looked as though it had been cleared out quickly. Rats scurried about a room stacked with sacks of flour. At the front of a headquarters auditorium down the hall stood a billboard-size painting of Hussein wearing aviator sunglasses.
Most in Dibis seemed to welcome the pesh merga.
"We are happy for this day," said welder Star Muhammed, 37. "Saddam Hussein killed everyone. We were always living with war. The Baath Party forced us to fight."
But when a Kurdish fighter tried to enter the Dibis hospital, a worker opened fire, wounding him. The worker, a small, balding man, was arrested by angry militiamen and driven away in a commander's four-wheel-drive.
The worker may have thought he was protecting the hospital from looting, but a pesh merga commander angrily pushed away a Western reporter who tried to speak to him.
The journey south
Some soldiers were grabbing whatever they could as they advanced to Kirkuk. On the road south of Dibis, two fighters sprang from their vehicle and ran to see who could get to an Iraqi military jeep first and claim it as war booty.