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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- U.S. forces battled holdout fighters Thursday at a palace and a mosque in Baghdad, with one Marine killed and up to 20 wounded. In the north, America's Kurdish allies triumphantly entered the city of Kirkuk near some of Iraq's most productive oil fields.
President Bush, in a remarks televised throughout Iraq, told its citizens, "The long era of fear and cruelty is ending. ... the future of your country will soon belong to you."
In the southern city of Najaf, a crowd hacked to death two Shiite Muslim clerics -- one a Saddam Hussein loyalist, the other a returning exile who had urged support for U.S. troops -- at a meeting meant to forge reconciliation in one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines, witnesses said.
Skirmishes and widespread looting continued in Baghdad, a day after U.S. officials declared that Saddam Hussein's regime was no longer in control. U.S. Central Command said Marines engaged in "intense fighting" with pro-Saddam forces at the Imam Mosque, the Al-Azimyah Palace and the house of a Baath party leader.
Maj. Gen. Gene Renuart, director of operations at Central Command, said U.S. troops acted on information that regime leaders were trying to meet in the area. During the operations, he said, Marines were fired on from the mosque compound.
Renuart said those resisting the U.S troops were captured or killed, but he provided no details. Baghdad is now completely encircled by U.S. forces, he said, but "is still an ugly place," with pockets of resistance.
At least two explosions rocked the southern end of the Old Palace presidential compound Thursday evening, starting several small fires. U.S. Army troops occupying the compound appeared to return fire with tank cannons. There was no report of casualties.
Aside from those incidents, the largely one-sided battle for Baghdad seemed nearly over, and U.S. commanders were focusing on plans to oust pro-Saddam forces from their handful of remaining strongholds in the north -- including Saddam's heavily defended hometown of Tikrit and the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk near the northern oil fields.
A convoy of Kurdish fighters in about 100 vehicles drove into Kirkuk on Thursday, triggering celebrations by Kurdish residents, looting of government buildings and the toppling of a statue of Saddam in a central square.
Turkey said it would send military observers to Kirkuk to make sure the Kurds do not remain there. Turkish officials fear that if the Kurds control Kirkuk and Mosul, they may seek complete independence from Iraq and fuel the aspirations of Turkey's own minority Kurds.
Renuart said U.S. forces have covered "about half or 60 percent" of Iraq, mostly in the south.
"There's a long way to go still," he said. "We're not sure when a military victory will be complete."
In Najaf, a meeting meant to foster reconciliation turned tragic when a melee broke out at the shrine of Imam Ali, one of the holiest sites of Shiite Islam, according to witnesses.
Killed were Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a high-ranking Shiite cleric who had returned a week ago from exile in London, and Haider al-Kadar, an official of Saddam's Ministry of Religion.
"People attacked and killed both of them inside the mosque," said Ali Assayid Haider, a mullah from the southern city of Basra. The accounts could not be independently confirmed.
After Wednesday's momentous celebrations in Baghdad, and after perhaps the quietest night since the war began, residents of the capital were back out on the streets Thursday.
Motorists flew white flags on their vehicles. Many people embarked on a new wave of looting, setting fires to some Interior Ministry buildings and making off with carpets, furniture, TVs and air conditioners from government-owned apartments, abandoned government offices and the police academy.
Also looted was the German Embassy -- representing a government that had emphatically opposed the U.S. decision to go to war.
In Saddam City, a densely population Shiite Muslim district in Baghdad, some residents set up roadblocks, confiscated loot being brought back from the city in wheelbarrows and pushcarts, and sent the booty to a nearby mosque.
Some U.S. units received word Thursday that they should try to stop the looting, but strategies for doing so remained incomplete.
"There's civilian looting like crazy, all over the place," said Lance Cpl. Darren Pickard of Merced, Calif. "There just aren't enough of us to clear it out."
One man, Adel Naji al-Tamimi, 49, said had spent 17 years in prison for writing anti-Saddam articles.
"He made himself a legend and a myth," al-Tamimi said. "His atrocities and oppression controlled our feelings and we're still afraid."
In many parts of the country, civilians struggled with serious shortages of food, medicine and clean water. Several major international aid groups are demanding swift access to Iraqi civilians, without interference from U.S. or British troops.
"We need the independence to move around and do our assessments and we need security," said Kathleen Hunt of Care International. "The images we see on television (of widespread looting) are not very encouraging in terms of lawlessness in certain parts of the country."
Hoping to restore some degree of order to the southern city of Basra, British troops Thursday asked residents to turn in their guns -- no questions asked. Renuart said coalition commanders had been heartened by cooperation from Muslim clerics in Basra, who were seeking to curtail looting and assist in reducing the number of guns in the community.
Humanitarian assistance is expected to be high on the agenda of the U.S.-led interim administration that is expected to begin operating in Baghdad within the next week or two. Headed by retired U.S. Gen. Jay Garner, the team will coordinate relief programs, rebuild shattered infrastructure and start setting up a democratic government.
Vestiges of the old government were vanishing rapidly. Statues and portraits of Saddam were toppled and defaced in Baghdad and other cities, while Iraqi diplomats at some embassies abroad shredded or burned documents. Iraq's U.N. ambassador, Mohammed Al-Douri, told reporters "the game is over, and I hope peace will prevail."
Saddam's fate remained unknown. Hoping to resolve the mystery, U.S. special operations forces examined a site in a Baghdad neighborhood that was bombed Monday based on intelligence that Saddam and at least one of his sons were there.
Though elated by the U.S.-led coalition's success, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said several missions remain to be accomplished before any victory declaration. Among them: securing the northern oil fields, determining the fate of Saddam and his sons, uncovering details of Saddam's weapons programs, and capturing or killing any terrorists still at large in Iraq.
Across the Arab world, the fall of Baghdad -- and the televised scenes of jubilation and looting -- provoked shock, disbelief and bitterness. Some Arabs expressed hope that other oppressive regimes in the region would crumble; others were disappointed that Saddam's forces offered such weak resistance to America.
According to the Pentagon, 101 American troops died in the first three weeks of the war, 11 were missing and seven were listed as captured. The British said 30 of their troops were dead. There are no reliable estimates for Iraqi casualties; an Army spokesman said 7,300 prisoners had been taken.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)