Marines Take Saddam’s Last Bastion Tikrit

TIKRIT (Reuters)–US Marines backed by tanks stormed into Saddam Hussein’s final stronghold on Monday–seizing control of his hometown Tikrit in possibly the last major military action of the Iraq war.

Attack helicopters swooped low over one district–firing heavy machine-guns to blast out lingering clusters of do-or-die defenders–while Marine patrols combed a bombed-out presidential palace in search of senior supporters of the ousted government.

US commanders said the fall of Tikrit–175 km (110 miles) north of Baghdad–brought their 26-day military campaign to a "transition point.” The whereabouts of Saddam–who was born in a village near Tikrit in 1937–remained unknown.

US Brigadier General Vincent Brooks told reporters at war headquarters in Qatar there could still be fighting–but that it would not be an "organized regime effort.” US forces now see the main threat as hit-and-run attacks by paramilitaries.

As the main thrust of the war effort eased–Washington upped pressure on Iraq’s neighbor Syria–which it says may be harboring top Saddam loyalists and chemical weapons.

Secretary of State Colin Powell warned of possible diplomatic or economic measures. Syria denied the US charges.

In Baghdad–more than 2,000 Iraqi policemen reported back for work in a move that US authorities hope will help stop the orgy of looting that followed the dramatic collapse of Saddam’s 24-year iron-fisted rule last week.

Marines charged into Tikrit at dawn after a fierce overnight aerial bombardment of remnants of the Republican Guard. There was no sign of the jubilation seen when other Iraqi cities fell. A statue of a resplendent Saddam on horseback stood unscathed and pristine pictures of him adorned lampposts.

Young and old filled the courtyard of Etchmiadzin in anticipation of Palm Sunday services last Sunday. Following Morning Services–as the Pontifical procession of deacons–priests and bishops entered the courtyard–they were greeted by hundreds of faithful waving palm and willow branches–which they had brought to church to be blessed.

However–some locals flashed thumbs-up signs and said they were glad that fighting appeared over.

"It’s a huge relief–we think of ourselves as peaceful people who got stuck with a dictator. Hopefully we’ll get a leader who respects people and lets them be in peace,” said 58-year old Hussein al-Khalidi.

Normality appeared to be slowly returning to Baghdad–battered by two weeks of air raids followed by four days of near anarchy. Some kiosks and food stores opened. Traffic jams once again started to clog the streets.

But the occasional crackle of gunfire could be heard in the distance–and–with water and power supplies still cut–a few hundred Iraqis demonstrated to complain about the lack of security and public services.

"Islamic state! Islamic state! Not American–not American!” dozens of protesters chanted.

US officials tried to hasten the return of Iraqi security forces across the capital–organizing a meeting of hundreds of police. Some former Iraqi officers hurled abuse at Saddam and others attacked his statue with hammers and metal bars.

In the central city of Najaf–tribal leaders halted a siege by armed men of the home of Shi’ite Muslim leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and took control of the spiritual center where two clerics were hacked to death last week.

"The siege has ended,” said Mohammad Baqir Mohri–an aide to Sistani–whose home in the city had been surrounded on Saturday by groups demanding he leave Iraq. Sistani’s whereabouts were unknown but relatives said that he was safe.

MEETING PLANNED

The standoff highlighted how difficult it could be to cement national unity in Iraq. Shi’ites make up 60 percent of Iraq’s population of around 26 million and were persecuted for decades by Saddam’s secular Sunni-dominated Baath Party.

Plans for a US-led administration of postwar Iraq–which Washington would like to see formed within weeks–face an early test on Tuesday when US officials meet skeptical Iraqi factions in the southern city of Nassiriya.

The gathering will be overseen by Jay Garner–a retired US general who ran a mission to assist Iraqi Kurds after the 1991 Gulf War. "Nassiriya will be the first meeting of the Iraqis and is a test case,” said Nathan Jones–a spokesman for Garner.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair–Washington’s main ally in the Iraq war–said he hoped elections could be held in Iraq within a year of an interim authority being established.

As Marines consolidated their position in Tikrit–US officials said Saddam’s half brother–Watban Ibrahim Hasan al-Tikriti–had been captured near the Syrian border.

Watban was on a US most-wanted list of 55 people. Saddam removed him as interior minister in 1995 but he remained an adviser. Saddam’s fate is still unclear. Some believe he may be in Tikrit or has fled abroad–others that he might be dead.

WARNING TO SYRIA

Finding Saddam is a top priority for the US military–still smarting from its failure to locate Taliban chief Mullah Omar and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

"They definitely want to get him. Losing Mullah Omar was absent-minded–losing Osama bin Laden was stupid. If you lose Saddam Hussein as well–you’re beginning to look like a bunch of clowns,” said Toby Dodge–an Iraq expert in Britain.

With Saddam apparently still at large–the United States ratcheted up pressure on Syria. Washington "will examine possible measures of a diplomatic–economic or other nature as we move forward,” Powell said.

"In light of this new environment–they (Syria) should review their actions and their behavior–not only with respect to who gets haven in Syria and weapons of mass destruction but especially the support of terrorist activity,” Powell added.

Blair told the British parliament–however–that "there are no plans whatever to invade Syria.”

Syria denied possession of chemical weapons–the ostensible reason for the invasion of Iraq–and said it had never cooperated with Saddam’s administration.

Diplomats and analysts suggested that the mounting US warnings to Syria were mainly aimed at pressuring Damascus to stop aiding anti-Israeli militant groups such as the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Hizbollah in Lebanon.

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