Into 'The Heartland Of The Beast'

2003/4/14 US forces in front of presidential palace, Tikrit, northern Iraq, video still
U.S. troops encountered stiff but sporadic resistance Monday as they pushed into Saddam Hussein's hometown, Tikrit, in what could be the last major battle of the war in Iraq.

The presidential palace in Tikrit was seized without a fight, the military said, and large numbers of U.S. troops were seen in central Tikrit in the afternoon.

"There was less resistance than we anticipated," said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, U.S. Central Command spokesman, noting that Tikrit's defenders had been subjected to punishing airstrikes over the past several days.

In a sign of the easing air campaign, two Navy aircraft carriers will leave the war zone this week, a U.S. official said. The USS Kitty Hawk will return to its base at Yokosuka, Japan, and the USS Constellation will return to San Diego, the official said.

In other developments:

  • U.S. troops discovered thousands of microfilm cartridges and hundreds of paper files in two residential buildings in a Baath Party enclave Monday in central Baghdad in what could be a major intelligence discovery.
  • The Bush administration said Monday it will consider diplomatic, economic and other steps against Syria, saying it was concerned that Damascus is harboring fleeing Iraqi leaders and developing its chemical weapons capabilities. The Syrian Foreign Ministry denied both charges, and President Bashar Assad held talks with British and Saudi envoys Monday.
  • In a message aired on armed forces TV networks around the world, President Bush thanked the troops serving in Iraq: "All who wear this nation's uniform have chosen to serve in America's defense and in freedom's cause. You and your families deserve the gratitude of the nation, and the full support of our government."
  • The Los Angeles Times reports the surrender of a second leader in Iraq's alleged weapons programs. Jafar Jafar is considered the father of Iraq's efforts to build a nuclear bomb. His defection follows that of science adviser Amer al-Saadi.
  • Coalition forces now control all areas with Iraqi oil fields, but it will probably be weeks before crude is flowing again because explosives need to be cleared and wells repaired, Brooks said.
  • The Pentagon's latest American casualty count includes 123 dead and four missing. The British government says 30 British soldiers have died. Neither Iraq nor the coalition has released an estimate of Iraqi military casualties. Iraq says nearly 600 civilians have been killed and more than 4,000 wounded.
  • Seven rescued American POWs told reporters with The Washington Post and The Miami Herald that they were kicked and beaten when they were captured, and were taunted and interrogated. But they were regularly fed, given medical treatment — three had gunshot wounds — and did not complain of torture.

    Brig. Gen. John Kelly, the Tikrit operation's commander, said many local people had come forward to point out members of the Fedayeen militia and Saddam's Baath party. Coalition officials initially believed as many as 2,500 fighters had gathered to defend the town.

    "This is the heartland of the beast," Kelly said. "The beast is Saddam Hussein. If you were a committed regime murder guy, I guess you'd come here."

    Unlike in other major Iraqi cities, however, the many portraits, banners and statues of Saddam remained undamaged.

    "We're not going to touch his picture. He's our leader," said Abdul Rahouf Khaled, a construction leader trying to get out of town. Khaled said he wanted the country's next leader to be "someone who is Iraqi and elected by Iraqis."

    Monday's combat came after a night of heavy bombing and after Marines made several forays in and out of the city Sunday, drawing occasional small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

    Elsewhere, U.S. forces were working with local authorities in Iraq's cities to restore order after several days of lawlessness, along with power, water service and medical care, Brooks said. Government buildings, hospitals and schools have been damaged or gutted by looters in several cities.

    Traffic police were recalled to patrol neighborhoods alongside British troops in the southern port of Basra, and joint patrols were in the works for Baghdad, Karbala and other cities.

    With U.S. troops guarding banks and hospitals, parts of Baghdad finally began to return to normal Monday. Shops reopened, traffic snarled and people who had fled the fighting began streaming home.

    However, smoke from the Ministry of Trade, the Rashid Theater of Fine Arts, and offices and apartment buildings was a vivid testament that looting and arson continued, and a 45-minute gunbattle outside the Palestine Hotel on Sunday was proof that Baghdad remains a dangerous place.

    Sporadic resistance continued in parts of Baghdad. The fighters, often Syrians and other foreigners, were operating individually or in small clusters, said Navy Capt. Frank Thorp, a U.S. Central Command spokesman.

    Marines fanning through Baghdad's neighborhoods have found large caches of weapons and ammunition, including about 80 Frog-7 missiles capable of carrying nuclear or chemical warheads discovered in large yellow trucks Monday, Capt. Daniel Schmitt said.

    Underscoring the difficulties that could face Iraq's interim administration, a mob in Najaf had for a time surrounded the home of Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric and demanded he and other religious leaders leave the country — the latest instance of bitter rivalries erupting in the holy city some 100 miles south of Baghdad.

    In the northern oil center of Kirkuk, Human Rights Watch is investigating claims that a group of Kurdish men shot and killed an Iraqi Turkoman boy.

    Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, was calm, with U.S. troops controlling the airport and guarding bridges as well as key intersections. In the old city center, civilians manned checkpoints armed with guns, clubs and metal pipes.

    Marines were also working to secure the town of Samarra, about 30 miles to the south, where the seven American POWs were rescued Sunday.