inching beasts to babylon by the waters where we wept
The peshmergas advanced cautiously at dawn into the territory opened by the overnight withdrawal. For many, it was their first look at land held by Baghdad since a failed 1991 Kurdish uprising after the Gulf War.
The road appeared to be mined in places. Along one stretch, it was blocked by long metal bars and earthen mounds.
At first, some Kurds feared the pullout could be a trap by Iraqi commandos. But worries faded as each crest revealed a panorama of empty grazing land and abandoned installations.
Iraqi soldiers left behind cinderblock bunkers, sandbags and barbed wire barricades. But no weapons or strategic information were found, Kurdish fighters said. On Friday east of Kirkuk, Kurdish militiamen said they'd found gas masks and vials of the nerve gas antidote atropine in the headquarters of Saddam's Baath Party in Qala Hanjir.
Along the Irbil-Kirkuk road, Kurds planted the yellow flag of the Kurdistan Democratic Party - one of the two main Kurdish factions - atop a former Iraqi observation hill overlooking the abandoned village of Shehan surrounded by lush pastures dotted with yellow and violet wildflowers.
"I used to live on a farm over there," said fighter Hamza Ali, pointing to a cluster of broken stone buildings outside the village. "The Iraqi army destroyed everything. It's sad to be back here and see my village this way."
Tracks in the mud suggested the Iraqis had some tanks in the area recently.
In a foxhole, an Iraqi soldier left an empty pack of Al-Rashid cigarettes with some pencil doodles on the inside cover. The Iraqi-made brand claims to be "the finest Virginia filter cigarettes."
The Kurdish fighters - in mismatched uniforms and munching on wild celery - posed for snapshots. Overhead, the contrails of U.S. warplanes left white cat claw streaks in the cloudless sky. On the horizon: the dark smoke from a bombing strike in the direction of Kirkuk.
"This move by the Iraqi forces must mean only one thing: Saddam's government is using whatever it has left to try to defend Kirkuk," said a Kurdish special forces chief, Nazim Harki. "And we are another step closer to Kirkuk."