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Hundreds of US tanks attack Tikrit

Hundreds of US tanks backed by airstrikes launched an attack on Saddam Hussein's last stronghold of Tikrit on Sunday.

india Updated: Apr 14, 2003 15:12 IST

Hundreds of US tanks backed by airstrikes launched an attack on Saddam Hussein's last stronghold of Tikrit on Sunday.

Bombing raids by US planes resumed in the evening around Tikrit, the only major Iraqi town not yet in coalition hands, while witnesses said fierce fighting erupted on the outskirts of the city between die-hard Iraqi forces and US troops supported by helicopters.

A Canadian journalist "embedded" with the US marines, Matthew Fisher, told CNN 250 US armoured vehicles had entered Tikrit.

He quoted US commander Brigadier John Kelly as saying five Iraqi tanks had been destroyed on the outskirts and at least 15 people killed in firefights.

A spokesman for US Central Central Command in As-Saliyah, Qatar, said: "We have forces in Tikrit.

"We are actively engaging any forces we need to."

Fisher said it was "a very significant attack. They've brought forward a great number of Cobra assault helicopters and Marine F-18s overhead."

He said US forces had been told about 2,500 Iraqis, including the elite Republican Guard and Fedayeen militia fighters, were willing to fight.

The capture of Saddam's home town, which lies about 180 kilometres north of Baghdad, would mark a major step towards the end of the three-and-a-half-week-old conflict.

The attack was launched despite an offer from 22 tribal leaders in the city to negotiate a peaceful surrender of the Fedayeen.

Tribal chief Yussuf Abdul Aziz al Nassari told an AFP correspondent in the city: "We are ready to surrender, but let them stop their bombardments. After that we are asking for just two days to persuade the Fedayeen to lay down their arms."

Earlier, only a number of armed and angry residents could be seen in the centre of the city. They said they wanted to prevent the looting that has occurred in every Iraqi city abandoned to the coalition.

As US forces entered what is expected to be the final military phase of the war, the United States ratcheted up the pressure on Syria, fuelling suspicions Washington will turn its attention next to Iraq's neighbour to the west.

Washington accused Syria of possessing chemical weapons, charged that its nationals had engaged US troops in combat in Baghdad and warned it must not allow senior Iraqi leaders to escape through its territory.

President George W Bush stopped short of threatening US military action against Damascus, but said it must cooperate in efforts to wipe out the remnants of Saddam's regime.

"The Syrian government needs to cooperate with the United States and our coalition partners. It must not harbour any Baathists, any military officials who need to be held to account," Bush told reporters at the White House.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said many Syrian nationals were killed in fighting overnight in Baghdad and others have been taken prisoner.

Syrian officials emphatically denied that it was harbouring members of the regime or had weapons of mass destruction.

"We will not only accept the most rigid (weapons) inspection regime, we will welcome it heartily," said Imad Moustapha, the number two in the Syrian embassy in the United States.

General Tommy Franks, commander of US forces in Iraq, reported that some Iraqi leaders had been captured trying to flee the country.

"I will say coalition forces and some Iraqis with whom we have contact have taken some people trying to escape from Iraq," Franks told Fox News.

He gave no details on their identity but said they were being held in western Iraq.

Kurdish television reported that coalition forces had captured Saddam's half-brother Watban Ibrahim Hasan near the border with Syria.

Another half-brother, Barzan al-Tikriti, was killed Friday in a US airstrike on his farm, west of Baghdad, a family friend said.

Both Watban and Barzan are on the list of the 55 most wanted Iraqi leaders issued by the US Defence Department.

Meanwhile, seven US soldiers thought to have been captured by Iraqi forces were found near Tikrit, Rumsfeld said.

Two of the seven were reported to have gunshot wounds but all were "basically in good shape," he added.

They included the two-man crew of an Apache helicopter shot down early in the war and five members, including a woman, of a supply unit caught in an ambush and later paraded on Iraqi television.

In Baghdad, several dozen Iraqis staged the first anti-US demonstration since American troops arrived to a warm welcome on Wednesday.

Amid mounting anger over widespread looting since Saddam's regime collapsed, protesters chanted: "There is only one God and America is the enemy of God!" The lawlessness continued Sunday as Iraq's National Library, which houses a number of rare volumes, was in flames after being ransacked.

The National Museum of Iraq, which contains a major collection of antiquities from the cradle of civilization, was partially looted on Friday.

US troops will start joint patrols with Iraqi security forces in a bid to restore order to the shattered capital, a US spokesman said.

US forces began the huge task of restoring normalcy to Baghdad, assisted by hundreds of residents who volunteered to collect the dead, work in policing roles and restore the electricity supply.

The capital, a city of five million people, has been without electricity for about 10 days, and most homes are without running water and telephone services. But bus services resumed Sunday between the capital and the south.

"I'd had enough of waiting in my house and seeing my city fall apart. So I've come to take the wheel again," said Taleb Khoder, a 35-year-old bus driver.

In an ominous sign of possible attacks to come, US military officials said Marines in Baghdad had uncovered 310 vests fitted for use by suicide bombers, with about half of them fitted with explosives.

Marines also reported finding five canisters with a substance testing positive for chemical agents but backed off an earlier claim of finding 278 suspect artillery shells.

In the main northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, an uneasy calm returned after two days of looting and intercommunal fighting, with US troops reassuring Turkey by replacing Kurdish fighters who captured the oil-rich cities.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told Turkish television channel CNN-Turk that the "forces which were there have withdrawn".

The Mosul police were back on the streets, while vigilantes were also trying to restore order in the city of 1.5 million people where up to 20 people were killed in two days of fighting between Arabs and Kurds.

Turkey fears a Kurdish takeover of the northern cities could lead to the creation of an independent Kurdish state.

First Published: Apr 14, 2003 02:15 IST