US forces take control of central Tikrit


US Marines in armoured vehicles today controlled the centre of the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit, the last stronghold of Saddam Hussein's regime whose fall would mark the effective end of the war.

The streets were said to be calm and five armoured vehicles were in the city centre, which appeared to have been deserted by Iraqi regular forces and much of the population.

The vehicles were deployed in a main square of the town, 115 miles north of Baghdad, after US Marines entered it before dawn, a sergeant said.

"We didn't encounter any resistance in the city, but only on the outskirts last night. We had bad ambushes there," said Marine Sergeant Robert Chute.

Firefights with what Sgt Chute believed to be Iraqi soldiers had left at least one Iraqi dead, while US units reported no casualties.

"My feeling is this means the end of the war" Sgt Chute said.

At the US Central Command's war headquarters in Qatar, British Group Captain Al Lockwood was equally upbeat. "As far as I am aware, Tikrit is the only pocket of resistance ... and so there is a very good chance that once Tikrit has fallen the war will have finished," he said.

"Clearly we are at a point when the decisive military operations that were focused on removing the regime ... that work is coming to a close," US Central Command spokesman Brigadier-General Vincent Brooks said.

"We believe our decisive operations campaign will be measured in weeks not months," he said.

Outside the centre of Tikrit, witnesses reported gunfire as residents warded off looters, but there was no immediate confirmation of the report.

US troops aboard four helicopters landed near the Tikrit headquarters of Saddam's Fedayeen militia but encountered no resistance, witnesses said.

Tribal chiefs had sought to negotiate a peaceful entry by coalition troops, but intermittent air strikes could be heard on the city's outskirts throughout the night.

A Canadian journalist with the US Marines told CNN that the 250 US armoured vehicles which entered the city had met some resistance from loyalist forces.

He quoted a US commander as saying five Iraqi tanks had been destroyed on the outskirts of the city and at least 15 people killed in firefights.

However the fighting fell well short of the feared last stand by Saddam's closest tribal allies.

Meanwhile US troops were trying to maintain some order in Baghdad, wracked by days of looting since Saddam's 24-year grip on the Iraqi capital collapsed last week.

In London, British Defence Secretary Mr Geoff Hoon said he believed that resistance to US-led forces in Baghdad was led by "foreign suicide bombers."

A US military spokesman said US troops would start joint patrols with Iraqi security forces. US officials have begun trying to rebuild the Iraqi police force as well as drawing people back to key sectors such as the electricity department.

In the main northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, calm had returned yesterday after two days of looting and intercommunal fighting, with US troops reassuring Turkey by replacing Kurdish fighters in the oil-rich cities.

Mosul police were back on the streets while vigilantes were also trying to restore order in the city of 1.5 million, where as many as 20 people were killed and 200 wounded in two days of fighting between Arabs and Kurds.