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Tikrit Looms as Next Battle -- Or Not

Tikrit Looms as Next Battle -- Or Not

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CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar (AP) -- Remnants of the Republican Guard and other Iraqi troops are regrouping in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit for a possible final stand. But they've been severely weakened by weeks of airstrikes, U.S. Central Command said Friday.

While a bruising battle was still possible, Tikrit could also fall without much of a fight.

After the peaceful handover of Mosul and Kirkuk, Tikrit is the next big prize in northern Iraq. The city was Saddam's power base during his rule and was the source of many members of his inner circle. One of Saddam's longtime confidants, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, is believed to have moved missiles into the Tikrit area to bolster its defenses.

Coalition warplanes have been pounding what's left of the Republican Guard's Adnan division as well as regular Iraqi army forces around Tikrit for weeks, but vehicles and other military equipment remain.

In addition, U.S. officials have seen remnants of other Iraqi army and Republican Guard units join up with other stragglers in and around Tikrit, making what some refer to as "composite forces" still defending the city, about 90 miles northwest of Baghdad.

"You have elements, remnants of that that are coalescing and forming composite units," said Navy Lt. Mark Kitchens, a Central Command spokesman.

The reformed units aren't believed to be an effective fighting force, however, especially after weeks of punishing airstrikes and the collapse of the Iraqi regime, he said.

In an indication that resistance continued, coalition special operations forces and Iraqi fighters exchanged fire Thursday along the road north of Tikrit toward Bayji, said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, deputy chief of operations at Central Command.

After the fight ended, coalition forces discovered five small airplanes covered with camouflage, which were promptly destroyed.

"We believe these airplanes might be something that could be potentially used by regime leaders to try to escape or they certainly could potentially be used for the delivery of weapons of mass destruction," he said.

Coalition forces also have moved to cut off another potential escape route for Iraqi leaders: by land into Syria.

Brooks said U.S. troops in western Iraq now control the crossings on two highways leading into Syria after the Iraqi colonel in charge of the checkpoints surrendered.

But U.S. forces were facing particularly fierce defenses around Qaim, the main town on the Syrian border, Brooks said. The heavy resistance has raised speculation the town may be site for weapons on mass destruction, he said.

"The degree of defense there and intensity causes it to be of interest to us and it, obviously, is of interest to the regime," he said. Most Iraqi surface-to-surface missiles fired in the 1991 Gulf War were launched from the Qaim area.

The quick fall of Kirkuk and Mosul raised the possibility Tikrit might follow suit.

Some observers note that the sudden evaporation of the Iraqi 5th Army Corps in Mosul, so late in the war and after punishing airstrikes, indicated that word had finally reached northern fighters that the regime had fallen.

Navy Capt. Frank Thorp, another Central Command spokesman, stressed the significance of the fall of the 5th Corps, noting it was the major force in Mosul.

"They have made the very wise choice of living for the future of Iraq instead of dying for this Iraqi regime," he said.

Whether those around Tikrit do the same remains to be seen.

"As with previous coalition advances, we continue to shape the battlefield in and around the city, and are aggressively engaging enemy forces in Tikrit," Thorp said.

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

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