April 14, 2003
TIKRIT, Iraq -- U.S. Marines moved into Saddam Hussein's hometown early today 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 Saddam -- and possibly officials from Hussein's regime -- were holed up in Tikrit, a reporter for Canada's National Post covering the Marines told CNN.
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.
This 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 reported.
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. Hussein 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 Hussein'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.
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.
Many of Tikrit's streets were almost deserted. Unlike in other major Iraqi cities, the many portraits, banners and statues of Hussein remained undamaged.
Meeting no resistance, advance elements of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division entered southern Iraq late Sunday to reinforce the American war effort.
The advance units were scouting the way for a convoy expected to roll in early today and continue throughout the day, said Maj. Mike Silverman.
The division had initially been a key part of the American war plan, to invade Iraq from the north through Turkey.