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Coalition Takes Control of Iraqi City of Kirkuk - 2003-04-11

Coalition forces have taken control of the key Iraqi city of Kirkuk, as U.S.-led troops continue to root out pockets of resistance in Baghdad. Meanwhile, a prominent Iraqi Shiite cleric was murdered in one of the country's holiest Shi'ite shrines in Najaf, in the center of the country.

With stunning speed and barely a fight, Kurdish fighters and U.S. Special Operations forces took control of the northern city of Kirkuk and its oil fields Thursday.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the Bush administration has been in touch with the Turkish government in an effort allay Ankara's fear that Kurdish control of Kirkuk's oil would encourage Kurdish independence. "We understand their concerns, and Kirkuk, which is the city that is involved here, will be under American control," he said.

At the Pentagon, Major General Stanley McChrystal says Iraqi army units in the north are the last significant military formations still on the battlefield. He says their capabilities appear to have diminished significantly in the past few days, but there have been no wholesale surrenders.

The general said another priority is dealing with scattered resistance in places like Baghdad, pointing to a suicide bomb attack at a U.S. Marine checkpoint there as an example of the dangers that still exist.

"Clearly, the focus right now has got to be on getting the death squads and the Special Republican Guard elements identified and defeated and out of the city," he said. "Because that is the major threat. Looting is a problem, but it is not a major threat."

VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu, who is with U.S. troops on the ground in the Iraqi capital, says she thinks the increased military presence in the city has reduced some of the anarchy and chaos.

"I was in Saddam Hussein's residence area, where his presidential palace is, where the parade stadium is. I mean, that is the center of Baghdad," she said. "And I can tell you, in that section, there are hardly any people around. The roads were deserted."

In the central Iraqi city of Najaf, a crowd killed prominent Shiite cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who had recently returned from exile. Witnesses say the killing was apparently part of a power struggle among religious leaders.

Shiite Muslims make up 60 percent of Iraq's population, but were persecuted for decades by Saddam's Sunni-dominated administration.

Meanwhile, Iraqi diplomatic missions are in limbo. Documents were destroyed at the Iraqi diplomatic mission in Brazil. An Iraqi diplomat in Germany said he has not had contact with his government in weeks, a sentiment echoed by Qasim Shakir, Iraq's top diplomat in Japan.

"For myself, I have no contact with Baghdad," he said.

Countries around the world welcomed the apparent fall of Saddam Hussein's government.

Japan promised $100 million in humanitarian assistance, while the Philippines is sending 500 peacekeepers and relief workers to help rebuild Iraq.

Arab leaders express relief that Saddam Hussein's regime is gone, but add they are concerned about the possibility of an extended U.S. presence in the region. Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia also stress that Iraq's future government must be chosen by Iraqis.

Reactions from the so-called Arab Street are varied. Some are happy Saddam's regime is over, while others are upset that Iraqi soldiers did not put up a better fight for Baghdad.