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US in Saddam?s hometown

In what could be the end-game of the war, Iraqi soldiers fought pitched battles with US forces outside Tikrit on Sunday and some Iraqis even hinted of a surrender.

india Updated: Apr 14, 2003 14:49 IST

In what could be the end-game of the war, Iraqi soldiers fought pitched battles with US forces outside Tikrit on Sunday.

Tikrit, located 150 km north of Baghdad, is the last city with any serious Iraqi presence, and has been pounded by US warplanes for several days.

According to witnesses in Saddam's hometown, the Americans brought forward a great number of assault helicopters and fighter-bombers into the war theatre.

US officials, however, played down the prospect of an all-out battle because of Iraqi desertions.

General Tommy Franks, the US officer leading the military campaign, said military action would not end until all pockets of Iraqi resistance had been dealt with.

In the streets of Tikrit, tensions were running high as residents toted Kalashnikov rifles and grenades.

The armed men said they were ready to surrender to advancing US forces, but only if Iraqi opponents of Saddam's regime — Kurds, Shiites — did not accompany them into the city.

Saying much of the city's population of 100,000 had fled, the residents said they were carrying weapons to protect themselves from looters.

US forces in the battle for Tikrit are from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. Named Task Force Tripoli, the task force includes several regimental combat teams and light-armour reconnaissance battalions, plus 300 armoured vehicles.

The fall of the city to US-led forces would mark a significant step towards the end of the conflict in Iraq.

As US ground troops are mopping up Iraqi resistance, the US is preparing to wind down its military presence. Vice-admiral Timothy Keating, commander of naval forces, said two or three of the five US aircraft carriers may head home soon.

In an ominous sign of possible violence still to come, US military officials said Sunday that Marines had uncovered 310 vests fitted for use by suicide bombers, with about half of them "engineered with explosives".

US tanks entered the oil capital of Kirkuk to allay Turkish fears that Kurds would take control of the areas. The US said the giant Kirkuk oil complex could resume production in a few weeks.

US forces set up an operations centre in the city centre to recruit Iraqi workers for key sectors.

"We want workers, not only senior officials," said Gunnery Sergeant Claudia Lamantia, of the Ist Marine Expeditionary Force. "The idea obviously is to get everything back running."

Baghdad, which has five million residents, has been without electricity for about 10 days, and most homes are also without running water and telephone services. Public transportation is non-existent.

In northern Iraq, a move to co-opt the existing police force in the oil-rich city of Mosul sparked an angry reaction from Kurdish residents.

Since Kurdish rebel fighters entered Mosul on Friday, the city of 1.5 million people has been rocked by ethnic violence between the Kurds and Arab residents which has killed as many as
20 people.

DAY 25

* Home safe

7 US soldiers feared dead were handed over to US forces by their Iraqi guards near Samarra, 60 km north of Baghdad

* Back to business

As looting ebbed in Baghdad, street traders and kiosks opened for the first time since US troops took over

* Next target: Syria?

US pledges to hit Hizbollah in the next phase of ‘war on terror’ in a move which could threaten military action against Damascus

First Published: Apr 14, 2003 00:31 IST