Tikrit near collapse under rain of coalition firepower


US attack helicopters were last night patrolling the skies over Tikrit city, Saddam Hussein's birthplace, where the last stand of forces loyal to his regime appeared to be crumbling beneath an unrelenting coalition bombardment. Lynne O'Donnell reports from Tikrit

US Marines and Special Forces entered the city late in the day, backed by Cobra helicopters flying in groups of up to six. Sporadic firefights were reported in various quarters of the city as American troops clashed with pockets of resistance that came after a fourth day of intensive bombing by US fighters. Bombs fell every few minutes throughout the afternoon.

US forces have moved up from Baghdad, 150km to the south, bringing tanks, armoured personnel carriers and heavy artillery to ensure the fight is unequal and over fast.

Up to 2,500 fighters of the former Iraqi government forces were believed to have taken up positions in and around Tikrit for their ultimate battle. Local forces have been diminished by what appears to have been a mass desertion in recent days.

Throughout the city and on its outskirts, army bases and barracks stood empty, tanks and armoured personnel carriers crammed what had become military car-parks and munitions warehouses were packed with green wooden boxes of bullets and shells.

Residents said most troops had abandoned their positions as the bombing raids began four days ago and returned to their home towns.

The desertions have left a hardcore force of fighters with vested interests in the survival of the Baathist regime to stand their ground, however foolhardy their position has become.

Tikrit became a stronghold of support for the Baathist regime in the decades after Saddam's rise to power, thanks to his generous patronage of clans in the region.

Most of the clan leaders of Tikrit have offered to surrender and submit to coalition authority.

But three of the 28 leaders - those believed to have the most to lose from the demise of the Baath - have refused to lay down arms. Meanwhile, the whereabouts of Saddam remained a mystery, although US officials cited evidence that senior officials had fled to Syria and other countries. Allied forces captured a half-brother of the deposed leader, a US official said. Watban Ibrahim Hassan, a former interior minister, was captured north-west of Mosul in northern Iraq, trying to get to Syria, the official said.

President Bush gave his strongest warning to Syria yesterday over its alleged aiding of Saddam's defunct regime and accused it of having chemical weapons.