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U.S.: Baghdad Still Ugly

U.S.: Baghdad Still Ugly

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(AP) Kurdish fighters swept into Kirkuk and other areas around Iraq's northern oil fields on Thursday, fresh evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime was history. There were fresh American casualties as well as widespread looting in Baghdad, 24 hours after the Iraqi capital fell to U.S. forces.

One Marine was killed and as many as 20 were injured in a daylong fight triggered by Iraqi gunfire on the city's northern edge.

Another four Marines were injured in a suicide bombing at a military checkpoint after dark.

Nearly 100 miles to the north, U.S. commanders were turning their focus on Tikrit, Saddam's birthplace and the likely site of a last stand by his armed forces -- if there is to be one. "Some of it has been unconventional," said Maj. Gen. Gene Renuart, signaling the presence of U.S. commandos in the area.

Warplanes also bombed Iraqi positions near the border with Syria, where special forces were trying to prevent regime loyalists from slipping out of Iraq and to keep foreign fighters from entering.

Kurdish forces, which have battled Saddam for years, triggered celebrations when they reached Kirkuk, an ancestral home and gateway to Iraq's northern oilfields.

In a scene reminiscent of downtown Baghdad a day earlier, joyous residents toppled a statue of the Iraqi leader, then stomped it and hit it with their shoes -- a serious insult in the Arab world. The letters USA were spraypainted on the base of the statue.

Cars and trucks laden with Kurdish fighters drove through the city, flying the flags of the two major Kurdish political parties that rule the region -- yellow for Kurdistan Democratic Party and green for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Local residents cheered the passing Kurdish forces and pelted them with roses.

To the southeast, Kurdish peshmerga forces also moved into the city of Khaneqin near the border with Iran.

The city had been under a curfew for several days. But shortly after Iranian television broadcast images of Wednesday's developments in Baghdad, residents emerged from their homes and found Iraqi soldiers and Baath party members were gone.

The advances sparked alarm in Turkey, Iraq's neighbor to the north, which fears permanent Kurdish control over Kirkuk and nearby oil reserves. The Turkish government announced it was sending military observers to the city with U.S. approval, and Bush administration officials rushed to prevent difficulties.

Secretary of State Colin Powell told The Associated Press that Kurdish forces would pull back from Kirkuk, reducing the likelihood that Turkish forces would enter the region. "We assured them," he said of the Turks.

Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair both taped addresses to be televised in Iraq, part of a new information program that will include publication of a newspaper to be circulated in southern Iraq.

"The regime of Saddam Hussein is being removed from power and a long era of fear and cruelty is ending," Bush said, while Arabic subtitles scrolled across the screen. Promising to protect the country's "great religious traditions," he also said, "We will help you build a peaceful and representative government that protects the rights of all citizens."

Blair articulated similar themes. "Our enemy is Saddam and his regime, not the Iraqi people," he said. Our forces are friends and liberators of the Iraqi people, not your conquerors."

Their words were broadcast from a new station, dubbed "Towards Freedom," from U.S. C-130 Hercules aircraft patrolling the skies over Iraq. Officials said the station would provide five hours of programming five days a week over the frequency used by the former Iraqi state television channel.

While Bush, Blair and their commanders talked of a new life for Iraqis, Saddam's whereabouts remained unknown and there were fresh reminders that the war was not over.

"Baghdad's still an ugly place," Renuart told reporters at the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar.

U.S. forces battled holdout fighters for hours near the al-Azimyah Palace and a nearby mosque and Baath Party official's house.

"Our troops were fired on, took heavy fire from the vicinity of this mosque and were engaged in a fairly heavy firefight for a number of hours," Renuart said. U.S. officials said they had been tipped off that senior Baath Party leaders were meeting in the area.

Several hours later, a suicide blast injured four Marines shortly after dark in downtown Baghdad.

Marine Capt. Joe Plenzler said that, according to initial reports, "a man strapped with explosives approached a Marine checkpoint and detonated himself." No further details were available.

Half a world away, the victim of an earlier suicide bombing was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington. Capt. Russell B. Rippetoe, an Army ranger from Denver, became the first soldier from the Iraqi conflict to be buried on the historic grounds.

In Najaf, in southern Iraq, two Islamic clerics were hacked to death inside a mosque in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, witnesses told reporters.

The killings of Haider al-Kadar and Abdul Majid al-Khoei took place at the shrine of Imam Ali, at a meeting called to decide how to control the mosque, one of the holiest sites of Shiite Islam.

Many troops in Baghdad got a warm welcome. Pedestrians offered flowers to Marine guards. A few women teasingly asked one Marine, Kurt Gellert, to marry them, and others offered the use of their phones to call home. "That was tempting," he said.

Looting in Baghdad was rampant, as civilians cleaned out government buildings, carting away television sets, refrigerators, carpets and more,

Some Iraqis did what they could.

At al-Kindi hospital, medical students were sent into neighborhoods to retrieve medicine that had been taken on Wednesday. They returned with double-decker buses loaded with boxes of badly needed supplies.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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