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Major Combat Declared ‘Over’ / Hussein’s Hometown Falls Without Struggle; Bush Thanks Troops

Times Staff Writers

U.S. Marines on Monday captured Tikrit, the last big target of the war and the center of power for Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, as Pentagon officials declared that large-scale combat in Iraq was over.

“This is a day of emerging liberation for the people of Iraq,” President Bush’s spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said in Washington. Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said: “The [Hussein] regime is at its end.”

In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Parliament that “the cause was just, the victory right.”

While heavy artillery fire persisted early today near a Tikrit airport, the Marines said Hussein’s Republican Guard chose to flee rather than fight. Army Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared: “The major combat operations are over.”

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The Air Force and Navy began sending planes and ships home, including the four B-2 stealth bombers that flew wartime missions; several strike aircraft, including stealth fighters; and two of the five aircraft carrier battle groups that have been engaged in the war. Also headed home were two attack submarines that had joined cruisers and destroyers in firing 800 cruise missiles into Iraq.

The capture of Tikrit on the 26th day of the war gave military officials a distinct sense of relief, moderated by the likelihood that sharp, smaller, close-in firefights would continue for days in scattered parts of Iraq. The officials said ongoing hostilities might include suicide attacks against the Army and Marines.

But it was clear that the allies’ worst fears about chemical and biological attacks, major destruction of Iraqi oil fields, heavy and sustained fighting by the Republican Guard, missile attacks on Israel and prolonged, dangerous street-to-street fighting in the major cities of Iraq had not been realized.

What lay ahead threatened to be difficult. Police forces were needed to keep order. The Iraqi people needed water, electricity and food. They also needed a government and an operating economy. The fate of Hussein, his sons and the leaders of his regime needed to be determined. And the role of other nations interested in Iraq needed to be established.

In addition, U.S. forces needed to search hundreds of sites for suspected weapons of mass destruction. There have been no confirmed discoveries of such weapons, including at a site about 60 miles south of the city of Karbala, where military officials believed last week that they had found a nerve agent. They said Monday it was a high-grade pesticide.

A senior Army official said at the Pentagon that planners expect U.S. ground forces to remain in Iraq in large numbers for more than a year -- maybe several years. “The Army is going to be the long pole of the tent in this operation,” the Pentagon official said. “We haven’t even walked out of the Balkans yet. You can’t leave.”

The Pentagon listed 118 U.S. troops killed in the war, while Associated Press put the total at 121. The British counted 31 dead. Iraq gave no figures for its military losses, but Reuters news agency said U.S. officials estimated Iraqi military deaths at more than 2,300 in or near Baghdad alone. Reuters said Iraqi civilian casualties were in the thousands.

Four Americans were listed as missing and 400 wounded. Three were killed and three hurt on Monday when a grenade accidentally exploded at a checkpoint south of Baghdad and another weapon accidentally fired near Baghdad International Airport.

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In a taped TV appearance, Bush thanked U.S. troops and their families and said the nation would never forget those who had died. “You stand tall in times of conflict, and you stand ready in times of peace,” he said. “For your daily effort, for your professionalism and for your patriotism, I thank you on behalf of the people of the United States.”

At Tikrit, Hussein’s hometown and a bastion of the Baath Party, through which he exerted control over the nation, daybreak today brought a volley of airstrikes from F/A-18s and artillery fire at the western edge of the airport.

The city rang with large explosions as the Marines destroyed caches of captured ammunition and unused, booby-trapped Iraqi military equipment, with tripwires still attached. At the same time, the Marines returned sniper fire from Iraqis determined to hold out.

On Monday, the Marines had set up their combat headquarters in and around Hussein’s lavish palace on the Tigris River. Encountering only sparse and ineffective gunfire, they moved into residential and business areas. They captured a key bridge and the airport, took a number of prisoners, then began patrolling the streets.

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Sniper fire came from a distance and was mostly inaccurate. “They were just spraying and praying,” said Warrant Officer Larry Carpenter.

There were no reported Marine fatalities, although one sergeant was shot twice in the leg and once in the chest, where the bullet was deflected by an ammunition magazine and a notebook in his flak jacket.

Most residents stayed indoors, although some ventured out to loot government buildings. Still, the thievery was not driven by the mass hysteria that marked looting when Baghdad fell.

Col. John Pomfret, whose convoy into Tikrit took fire from snipers, said he noticed two groups of residents fleeing the city.

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“Interestingly, the ones driving BMWs weren’t smiling at us or waving,” Pomfret said. “They were apparently vested in the regime but not willing to fight for it. The disenfranchised looked very happy.”

Sprawling over 100 acres, the grounds of Hussein’s palace included flower gardens, riding trails, a broadcast studio, a marina, guest palaces and a mosque, all guarded by tall walls and gun towers.

“Saddam was a filthy beast: He had money only for himself, not for his people,” said an ethnic Kurd, serving as an Arabic translator for the Marines who took over both the grounds and the palace structure. “Now Tikrit is free. Praise God.”

The Marines established part of their headquarters in one of the palace ballrooms, amid marble walls, golden fixtures and chandeliers hanging from vaulted ceilings.

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Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, credited the capture of Tikrit not only to the Marine surge northward from Baghdad, but also to a number of missions conducted against the city throughout the war.

“We were not ignoring Tikrit by any means,” Brooks said. “We had a number of air operations that occurred in and around Tikrit with great effect.” In addition, he said, the Marine assault was preceded by a special operations raid on an airfield west of the city.

When the Marines reached Samarra, about 30 miles south of Tikrit, he said, they engaged in firefights with two small Iraqi units and destroyed both of them -- whereupon the townspeople greeted them with roses.

Among the several dozen prisoners of war captured around Tikrit were a number of Syrians and Jordanians, thought by the Marines to have been paid in cash to try to stop the allied forces’ takeover.

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Brooks said Iraqi intelligence was suspected of having recruited fighters in Syria. Several hundred were killed, he said, during a firefight with Marines at a mosque late last week in Baghdad.

Brooks said U.S. forces had discovered vests packed with explosives and ball bearings for suicide attacks. He said the troops who found them thought that some were intended for the foreign fighters.

In Washington, Pentagon officials warned anew that Syria had become a conduit of arms and mercenary fighters into Iraq and a haven for fleeing leaders of Hussein’s government.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld took the occasion of a visit from the foreign minister of Kuwait to tell reporters that Syria had conducted chemical weapons tests during the last year to year and a half.

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A defense official said, however, that the Pentagon was not planning any military operations against Syria. Nonetheless, the official warned: “Syria’s going to change the way they do business.”

In his overall assessment of the fighting, McChrystal said it was too soon to say the war was over. Allied troops, he said, still faced dangers from renegade paramilitary fighters, remnants of the Republican Guard and terrorists.

When asked by reporters about any likelihood that the guard might regroup, McChrystal said: “The Republican Guards, many of them may in fact go home and rejoin society without any issues.

“We are probably more worried about some of the Saddam Fedayeen [paramilitary fighters], potential members of the Special Republican Guards [assigned to protect Baghdad and Hussein himself]. But even within those organizations, many may just decide to rejoin what, in fact, will be a new Iraq.

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“So we are concerned about it and stay focused on it, but don’t have an assessment right now that there is a looming threat.”

Even as the fighting diminished, U.S. reinforcements poured across the Kuwaiti border as the first soldiers of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division entered Iraq.

The division was scheduled to head north, bypassing Baghdad, to fan out in northern Iraq, flanked by the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, a defense official said on condition of anonymity.

Their missions included consolidating U.S. control of cities, searching for weapons caches and investigating suspected production and storage sites for weapons of mass destruction, the official said.

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Even as Army troops prepared for a long stay, the first ship to leave the war zone was the dock-landing ship Portland, which arrived at Little Creek, Va., on Friday, according to Navy officials.

The aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk was scheduled to leave the Persian Gulf this week for home port at Yokosuka, Japan, the officials said. The Constellation was to leave soon after for San Diego.

The only carrier to remain in the gulf will be the Nimitz, officials said.

In addition, the Harry S. Truman and the Theodore Roosevelt were operating in the Mediterranean as part of the war. But the officials said one or the other would be sent home soon.

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At Central Command in Doha, Brooks said all of Iraq’s oil fields were under the control of allied military forces.

All well fires burning in the south have been extinguished, he said, and only one remains in the north.

Generally, wells in the north were in better condition than those in the south, Brooks said, adding that it will be some time before Iraq can resume pumping its oil.

“Even in the best cases,” he said, “we think it’s weeks before we’re back there getting into the business of running oil.

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“Everything has to be put into a safe mode, evaluated, cleared of any potential ordnance or explosives that might still be out there, assessed as part of a whole system, and then assessed item by item before we can go in.”

*

Times staff writers Mark Porubcansky in Doha and Esther Schrader in Washington contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Casualties

*--* Military (as of 8 p.m. Pacific time Monday)

U.S Britain Iraq Killed 121 31 unknown

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Missing 4 0 unknown

Captured 0 0 7,300

*--*

Civilian

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* Before the government dissolved last week, Iraq said at least 1,261 civilians had been killed. In addition, nine journalists and an aid worker have been killed.

Los Angeles Times


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