US tanks and troops seized Saddam Hussein's last power base of Tikrit on Monday, signalling the war is nearing its end as the focus began to switch to rebuilding Iraq and installing a new leadership after 24 years of iron fisted rule.
As marines captured one of the last symbols of Saddam's regime, the presidential palace in Saddam's hometown, US officials ratcheted up pressure on neighbouring Syria to not provide refuge for fleeing Iraqi officials.
Secretary of State Colin Powell warned Damascus of possible economic and diplomatic sanctions while Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld claimed Syria had conducted a chemical weapons test.
US commanders indicated that the seizure of Tikrit, the last Iraqi city still outside coalition control, likely marked the final major military engagement of the campaign launched on March 20, although fighting was not yet over.
"Clearly we are at a point when the decisive military operations that were focused on removing the regime... That work is coming to a close," Brigadier-General Vincent Brooks said at the US command's war headquarters in Qatar.
"We believe our decisive operations campaign will be measured in weeks not months," he said on day 26 of the war, with operations now to shift focus to "stability and support".
"But it is premature to say the war is over as long as there continues to be resistance," said Captain Frank Thorp.
Prime Minister Tony Blair in a speech to the House of Commons, the lower house of parliament, emphasized that fighting was not yet over, but that the challenge now beckoned of rebuilding Iraq, which suffered under a dozen years of UN sanctions.
"We are near the end of the war but the challenge of the peace is beginning," said Blair, who has the United States' strongest ally in the campaign against Saddam.
The search for a new Iraqi leadership will take an important step forward tomorrow when Iraqi opposition groups gather in the southern city of Nasiriyah for the first time since the fall of Saddam, who ruled his country with an iron fist for 24 years.
Normal life appeared to be making a slow return to Baghdad, although most shops remain closed and most parts of the city remain without water or electricity.
Iraqi police cars, escorted by US forces, started joint patrols for the first time since the city came under American control on Wednesday.
"It appears there are more people in the streets, so we think there is some progress in terms of security," said Nada Doumani, an ICRC spokeswoman in Geneva.
Looting was reported to have died down in the capital, but occasional clashes continue to plague the city.
US commanders say foreign fighters are behind most of the attacks.
For a second day hundreds of Baghdad residents angry at looting and slow progress on the resumption of services gathered in front of the operations base US forces have set up in the Palestine Hotel in central Baghdad.
As a dozen marines with M-16 rifles at the ready looked on edgily, some 300 people pressed against the barbed wire encircling the entrance of the hotel and chanted slogans and brandished handwritten signs that read "Where is our future?" or "We want security" and "We want a clean Iraq".