BANI MAQAN, Iraq - The first crack in Saddam Hussein's formidable northern defense line appeared here yesterday at this Iraqi checkpoint on the main highway into Kirkuk, a city rich in oil and strained by ethnic tensions.
This post, formerly bristling with soldiers and Iraqi border guards who exacted bribes from travelers passing through the demilitarized zone, was unexpectedly abandoned yesterday afternoon by Iraqi soldiers.
The soldiers had defended it since 1991. They left quietly, loading onto trucks and slipping quickly away.
The action came just hours after more than 1,000 American paratroopers jumped into friendly Kurdish territory in advance of the opening of a northern front. But those soldiers played no direct role in the Iraqi move, which occurred without a shot being fired.
Advance on the city
The Iraqis' departure opened the road from the Kurdish-controlled zone into Kirkuk, and Kurdish civilians and fighters streamed in, beginning what appeared to be an advance on a city of roughly 600,000 that is one of the war's ultimate political and economic prizes.
The withdrawal appeared to stop a few miles short of Kirkuk's outskirts, and for Kurds the day became both festive and ominous.
The departure provided the first tangible signs of weakness along a front where Hussein's troops have outnumbered Kurdish fighters to a degree that had almost seemed absurd. It sparked a joyous celebration outside the nearby Kurdish town of Chamchamal.
As Kurds sensed that their enemy had begun to buckle under the pressure of U.S. bombs, some men fired rifles into the sky. Others whooped.
Civilians on bicycles pedaled past silent guard shacks, heading into territory claimed from an enemy they readily admit they hate.
"Saddam Hussein is a son of a dog," declared Rakout Hamed Karim Shafi, a young smuggler. Shafi was walking along the road with a newly acquired possession, a rocket-propelled grenade he had happily lifted from a vacated Iraqi bunker.
Signs of mob rule
But by nightfall, as Shafi displayed his weapon, there were worrisome signs that the jubilation might give way to mob rule on a front where significant numbers of U.S. soldiers have yet to appear and civil order might be difficult to establish and maintain.
"Kirkuk is a disaster waiting to happen," said Hania Mufti, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, an independent group, which has warned that a coordinated plan is needed for Kirkuk to avoid interethnic violence and reprisal killings against Iraqi officials.
Journalists encountered soldiers and civilians returning to Chamchamal laden with war booty, even as others were heading in, driving empty cars or pushing empty carts.
They cheered the nation that had spurred the withdrawal. "USA good," said Aziz Karim, a local resident. "Very, very good."
They wandered a ghostly front. For 12 years the northern lines separating Iraq proper from the autonomous Kurdish zone have passed through this plateau, forming an advance line of trenches, bunkers and concertina wire, all reinforced by tanks and artillery the Iraqi army has kept a few miles back.
What had lasted 12 years collapsed after just a few days of bombing. A U.S. airstrike leveled the command bunker on this ridge Wednesday morning. The bunker, ringed with antennas, was destroyed in a thunderous explosion.
Even before the narrow collapse here yesterday, Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which controls the eastern Kurdish zone, suggested that under such attacks, the conscript Iraqi soldiers along the northern lines were in a pitiable state, wearied by a combination of recent heavy rains and U.S. bombs.
"They suffered too much, the Iraqi army," Talabani said. "Now they are very afraid. They are afraid to live in their trenches, and now it is raining, and they don't know where to go."