Kurdish peshmerga fighters from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan met with little resistance as they took control of the city after U.S. B-52 bombers pounded the city in the early morning.
Residents coming out of the town told Reuters Iraqi soldiers there had either laid down their arms or withdrawn south towards Tikrit.
There had been very little fighting in the town, the residents said.
Mola Bakhtiyar, a leading official of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, told the Associated Press the Kurds took control of the city, about 90 miles north of Baghdad, at midmorning without resistance.
A BBC correspondent in Kirkuk recounted scenes of jubilation in the city center after Kurdish fighters moved in with U.S. special forces.
“It’s quite chaotic at the moment, Kurdish soldiers are claiming that they have control of the entire city with just a few pockets of resistance. It just seems that they walked into the city without a problem,” the reporter said.
“What the Kurdish soldiers are saying is that the Iraqi army is no longer here although there are some Baath party members here who are putting up resistance in little parts of the town,” the reporter continued.
A Reuters correspondent said that before reaching Kirkuk he had seen U.S. special forces dismantling targeting equipment — used to help bombers locate their targets — as though they had no further use for it.
He also said he had seen no signs of Iraqi resistance since some shelling in the morning.
The correspondent said he could see a huge plume of smoke to the north, which Kurdish guerrillas had told him was coming from an oilfield. There was no immediate word on what was causing the smoke.
There were immediate signs that neighboring Turkey was uneasy about the Kurdish entry into Kirkuk, fearing that permanent control of the city could accelerate the Kurdish independence movement within the south of Turkey.
Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told reporters he spoke with Secretary of State Colin Powell on Thursday and that Powell offered to let Turkey send military observers to Kirkuk to make sure that Iraqi Kurdish fighters withdraw from the city.
Gul said Turkey accepted the U.S. offer and also had received assurances from Powell that Iraqi Kurds would not keep control of Kirkuk.
Turkey has a large force poised to enter northern Iraq to prevent any breakaway Kurdish state there, but Gul said Turkey was satisfied by U.S. pledges not to allow that.
“In the face of these guarantees there is no need for any tension,” he said.
Until now, Kirkuk had been in an Iraqi government-controlled area just to the west and south of a Kurdish-ruled zone under Western protection after the Gulf War of 1991.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, whose fighters entered Kirkuk, is one of the two main Kurdish organizations in northern Iraq, sharing control of the zone with the Kurdistan Democratic Party.