U.S. forces clash with loyalists in last bastion of resistance
TIKRIT, Iraq — U.S. Marines moved into Saddam Hussein’s hometown early Monday in a new foray to battle the city’s scattered defenders as U.S. artillery and warplanes tried to wear down any attempt at a last stand at the Iraqi leader’s power base.
U.S. forces suspected about 2,500 die-hards of the Republican Guard and the paramilitary Fedayeen — and possibly officials from Saddam’s regime — were holed up in Tikrit, a reporter for Canada’s National Post covering the Marines told CNN.
Artillery explosions flashed on the horizon, and jets roared overhead. With Marines massed on the outskirts, U.S. units moved in and out of the city Sunday, drawing occasional small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades but not encountering the intense battle that once seemed likely.
Monday morning, another Marine force began moving toward the city as waves of helicopters and warplanes went overhead, said Matthew Fisher, the Post correspondent.
On Sunday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said there was “no organized resistance” in Tikrit, though the city was “not permissive yet.”
“A lot of people have disappeared, including the leadership of the Baath party,” Rumsfeld told MSNBC. “There are people (in Tikrit) who do not have a lot of admiration for the Baathist regime … who are helping” the Americans, he told NBC in a separate interview.
After Sunday’s forays, the Marines left a force inside the town to establish a “foothold,” a New York Times correspondent with the Marines reports.
The Americans destroyed a tank column moving outside the town Sunday and killed a platoon of 15 to 20 Iraqis who attacked the Marines’ armored vehicles, the operation’s commander, Brig. Gen. John Kelly, told the newspaper.
The Marines also took out several surface-to-air missile sites in the city, Fisher said.
The Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera reported that local tribal groups offered to negotiate a “peaceful solution” with U.S. forces and hand over some Baath Party leaders in the town. The tribal groups said the regular army, Republican Guards and Fedayeen Saddam left the city five days ago, according to Al-Jazeera.
Tikrit, 90 miles north of Baghdad, is the last major city with substantial resistance by Iraqi forces. Saddam was born in the area, and many members of his inner circle come from the region.
After the fall of Baghdad last week, U.S. commanders cautioned that Saddam’s regime might try to hold on ferociously to Tikrit. But they played down that possibility in recent days because of desertions and damage from sustained airstrikes.
As they moved from Baghdad to Tikrit, the Marines rescued seven American troops held by the Iraqis for three weeks. Iraqi soldiers who had been abandoned by their officers approached the Marines and handed over the POWs.
Gen. Tommy Franks, the war commander, said some Marine units entered Tikrit after a swift advance from Baghdad, but he would not say how far the Marines had gotten.
Before the Marines’ arrival in Tikrit, live footage aired by CNN showed no signs of active Iraqi defenses, suggesting that intensive U.S. airstrikes had achieved their intended effect.
However, CNN vehicles came under small-arms fire as they tried to enter the city center Sunday. A security guard with the CNN crew returned fire at least twice, and the news crew quickly drove away.
Many of Tikrit’s streets were almost deserted. Unlike in other major Iraqi cities, the many portraits, banners and statues of Saddam remained undamaged.
The main bridge to the city from the east had two gaping holes in it, but very few damaged buildings were visible during a drive through part of downtown.
On the road connecting Tikrit and Tuz Khurmatu in the east, there were many abandoned checkpoints, bunkers and foxholes, as well as an abandoned artillery position. Planes zoomed overhead, and two plumes of smoke could be seen rising in the sky — one in the north and another in the south.
Businessman Khalef al-Ahbad said Tikrit had just endured four days of bombing.
“Tikrit is a developed city, it’s full of culture,” he said. “We do not have a taste for blood, we are not fighters. We are thirsty for peace. America is attacking us for its own purposes. We are a peaceful people.”
One man, Ali Abdullah, said U.S. Special Forces were in the city for five hours Friday. He added that four or five American tanks entered and that he heard a lot of bombing and shelling Saturday morning.
“Be careful,” he told a reporter. “Some of the Syrian suicide bombers are here.”
There were no reports of looting or evidence of it in Tikrit.
“We like Saddam Hussein and he has educated our people and we will support him to the end,” said Abdul al-Jabouri, part of a large group of men gathered at a gas station.
However, another man approached and said, “Long live the United States.”