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Tikrit battle looms, but Iraqis start to flee

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 12, 2003
[AP photo]
Arab tribe militias welcome Kurdish soldiers to Mosul Friday. The Kurds set up checkpoints after the city fell without a fight. U.S. troops offered capitulation, but found no Iraqi troops in town to surrender.

Republican Guard and other Iraqi troops regrouping in Saddam Hussein's hometown, Tikrit, have been battered by U.S. airstrikes and don't present an effective fighting force, U.S. Central Command said Friday.

Planners said some Iraqi troops might have fled.

The planners are raising the possibility that Tikrit, long touted as the possible site for a last stand by Hussein's loyalists, might fall without much of a fight.

After the peaceful handover of Mosul and Kirkuk, Tikrit is the next big prize in northern Iraq. The city was the Iraqi president's power base and source of many members of his inner circle.

Planners are not ruling out a battle, though. One of Hussein's longtime confidants, Izzat Ibrahim, is believed to have moved missiles into the Tikrit area.

U.S. officials have seen remnants of Republican Guard and other Iraqi army units join with stragglers in and around Tikrit, making what some refer to as "composite forces" defending the city, about 90 miles northwest of Baghdad. Vehicles and other military equipment remain.

"You have elements, remnants of that that are coalescing and forming composite units," said Navy Lt. Mark Kitchens of Central Command.

But coalition warplanes have been pounding what's left of the Republican Guard's Adnan division and regular Iraqi army forces around Tikrit for weeks.

The units reforming in Tikrit are not believed to be an effective fighting force, Kitchens said.

U.S. defense officials said a few thousand Special Republican Guard remained in northern Iraq, including near Tikrit and Bayji, a town 25 miles north, but they said there were "no obvious significant forces in Tikrit."

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said ground forces and Special Forces are "degrading regime forces in and near Tikrit." He said there are "still enemy targets north of Baghdad, in Tikrit and some of the other major cities up there that we're going to have to deal with."

On Thursday, special operations forces and Iraqi fighters exchanged fire along the road north of Tikrit toward Bayji, said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, deputy chief of operations at Central Command.

After the fight, coalition forces discovered and then destroyed five small airplanes covered with camouflage. The planes might have been for regime leaders to use in escaping, or "for the delivery of weapons of mass destruction," he said.

Mosul falls without fight as Iraqi troops 'evaporate'

The northern city of Mosul fell into U.S. and Kurdish hands Friday after a corps of the Iraqi army disappeared.

Although U.S. officials at Central Command said the Iraqis had surrendered, Lt. Col. Robert Waltemeyer, commander of a Special Forces unit, said there were no troops to surrender.

"We offered capitulation, but . . . the Iraqi army evaporated, so there has been no formal capitulation or cease-fire," Waltemeyer said. "They may have just melted into the population."

As the Iraqis abandoned Mosul, U.S.-backed Kurdish forces reached the outskirts of the city and set up checkpoints.

With looting rampant, the Pentagon dispatched another 2,100 U.S. troops to northern Iraq to help restore order, a senior defense official said. The 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune, N.C., will be taken off the USS Iwo Jima and other ships in the Mediterranean and flown to Iraq.

Kurds to leave Kirkuk once more U.S. troops arrive

Kurdish fighters will leave oil-rich Kirkuk when enough American troops arrive to take over, a senior Kurdish leader said Friday.

"The United States will be in control of Kirkuk," said Barham Salih, prime minister of the eastern sector of the Kurds' autonomous region in northern Iraq.

"We are talking to the Americans and all other authorities to make sure that Kirkuk is vacated of all outside military forces," he said. Turkey, alarmed at the Kurdish takeover, said it had "reviewed" its troop readiness along the border with northern Iraq.

Dozens of U.S. Special Forces and about 1,200 paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade have entered the city.

Thousands of young Iraqi soldiers abandoned their positions and walked south toward Baghdad on Friday, making their way home on a blacktop highway in the strong sun. The unarmed men, some of them barefoot, wore civilian clothes and carried little or nothing. Some said it might take seven days to get home.

Troops block exit routes to Syria in continuing battle

U.S. commandos and warplanes and British and Australian forces are pounding Iraqi units around the remote town of Qaim, a battle near Iraq's border with Syria that has blazed largely out of sight of television viewers for several days.

Along with keeping Saddam Hussein and his regime from slipping out of Iraq to Syria, or weapons being smuggled in for Iraqi fighters, the allied attacks are aimed at ensuring Iraq cannot launch ballistic missiles at Israel, Pentagon and U.S. Central Command, officials said.

"Our goal is to make sure (Iraq) is not in a position to threaten" Israel, Brig. Gen. Brooks said, describing the U.S. airstrikes around Qaim as "preventive medicine."

Brooks said U.S. troops control the crossings on two highways leading into Syria after the Iraqi colonel in charge of the checkpoints surrendered. But the heavy resistance has raised speculation the town might be site for weapons on mass destruction, he said.

"The degree of defense there and intensity causes it to be of interest to us and it, obviously, is of interest to the regime," he said.

Search for prisoners in Baghdad turns up empty

Blasting open doors and tunneling through floors, U.S. troops tried to find political prisoners rumored by Iraqi families to be inside Baghdad's military intelligence headquarters -- but their efforts were fruitless.

"We didn't find anything," said Maj. Jack Nale of the U.S. Army's civil affairs psychological operations unit.

British reducing presence

British officials said Friday some naval and air forces would soon leave the gulf region after completing their missions in Iraq.

Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram told the British Broadcasting Corp. some armed forces would be returning, "but our commitment to Iraq remains 100 percent."

"This is by no means the beginning of a full-scale reduction," Ingram said.

Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said planes, helicopters and ships, including Britain's flagship aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, would shortly withdraw.

-- Information from the Associated Press, Scripps Howard News Service and Knight Ridder Newspapers was used in this report.

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