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Iraq's final stronghold falls to Invaders
Posted: Monday, April 14, 2003

TIKRIT, (Iraq) - United States Marines backed by tanks stormed into Saddam Hussein's final stronghold yesterday, seizing control of his hometown Tikrit and effectively sealing the US and British victory in the Iraq invasion.

With the main fighting apparently ending, Washington turned the heat on Iraq's neighbour Syria, accusing it of harbouring top associates of the deposed Iraqi leader and of testing chemical weapons.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell warned of possible diplomatic or economic sanctions on Syria. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer denounced Syria as "indeed a rogue nation". Syria, a stern critic of the Iraq war, denied the US charges.

US commanders said the fall of Tikrit, 175 km north of Baghdad, brought the 26-day-old invasion to a "transition point". British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Washington's main ally, said, "we are near the end of the conflict".

The whereabouts of Saddam, who was born in a village near Tikrit in 1937, remained unknown.

Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said at the US Qatar invasion headquarters, there could still be fighting, but that it would not be an "organised regime effort". US forces now see the main threat as ambushes by irregulars, aided by some foreign volunteers.

Navy officials in Washington said the United States was removing two out of five aircraft carriers it has kept stationed in waters near Iraq.

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 rule last week.

Marines charged into Tikrit at dawn after a fierce overnight aerial bombardment of remnants of the Republican Guard.

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

Brooks said resistance was less than expected. But there was no sign of the jubilation seen when other Iraqi cities fell. A statue of a resplendent Saddam on horseback stood unscathed and pictures of him remained on lamp-posts.

But some locals flashed thumbs-up signs and said they looked forward to peace.

"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.

With Saddam and most of his aides apparently still at large, the United States applied 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 behaviour, not only with respect to who gets haven in Syria and weapons of mass destruction but especially the support of terrorist activity," he added.

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld yesterday accused Syria of carrying out tests involving chemical weapons over the past 12 to 15 months. He gave no details.

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 co-operated with Saddam's administration. - Reuters.

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