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Marines Move Into Tikrit

Marines Move Into Tikrit

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CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar (AP) -- American troops entered Tikrit on Sunday, meeting little resistance as they pushed into the last stronghold of fighters loyal to President Saddam Hussein, the U.S. military said.

Along the way, Iraq forces turned over to advancing Marines seven U.S. soldiers captured earlier in the war. The POWs were found in Samarra, about 35 miles south of Tikrit, Saddam's hometown.

Col. Larry Brown, operations officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said elements of a Marine task force had entered Tikrit -- a power center for Iraq's minority Sunni Muslims who have dominated the government.

"We have people that are in Tikrit now. They are meeting light resistance," Brown said.

Gen. Tommy Franks said it was too early to say whether Tikrit, 90 miles north of Baghdad, would fall without a fight.

"I wouldn't say it's over," the head of U.S. Central Command told CNN. "But I will say we have American forces in Tikrit right now."

A Marine task force set out from Baghdad on Saturday, advancing toward Tikrit along Highway 1, which passes through Samarra, said Lt. Mark Kitchens, a Central Command spokesman. He said the unit's orders were to push north and if it met any enemy forces "to attack those forces and eliminate them."

"It's still unknown how much resistance awaits coalition forces in Tikrit," Kitchens said.

Another Marine unit that left the capital Saturday met "minimal resistance" moving along Highway 5 toward the town of Baqubah, about 30 miles northeast of Baghdad, Kitchens said.

U.S. officials have played down the prospect of a major battle in Tikrit because of desertions and damage from repeated airstrikes on Iraqi military forces.

The first televised footage from Tikrit, shown live early Sunday by CNN, indicated the city's northern defenses had been weakened. The CNN crew fled after coming under fire, however.

The CNN report suggested intense U.S. airstrikes had taken a heavy toll on Tikrit's defenders. The convoy of CNN vehicles came under small-arms fire as it tried to enter the city center. A CNN security guard returned fire at least twice, and the news crew quickly drove away.

Two members of the CNN party were injured, said Eli Flournoy, the network's senior international assignment editor. He said an Iraqi Kurd serving as a security guard was grazed by a bullet, and a CNN producer was hit by shattered glass.

CNN correspondent Brent Sadler had reported that U.S. military officers were negotiating with tribal chiefs in Tikrit for a peaceful surrender. After the gunfire, he said Saddam loyalists in Tikrit were "clearly still in control."

The Arab news channel Al-Jazeera also said Sunday that tribal chiefs in Tikrit had requested a cease-fire in order to start negotiations.

But a Central Command spokesman, Capt. Stewart Upton, said he had no reports of any surrender negotiations with remnant fighters in Tikrit.

Elsewhere, Special Operations forces were intercepting regime loyalists along Highway 2 between the northern city of Mosul and the Syrian border as well as along roads north and south of the town of Bayji, about 25 miles north of Tikrit, Kitchens said.

A U.S. official in Washington said U.S.-led forces in the Mosul area had captured a Saddam half brother who was a presidential adviser. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Watban Ibrahim Hasan was planning to cross the border into Syria.

A U.S. Special Forces soldier was wounded Sunday while on patrol aimed at restoring order in Mosul. Maj. Fred Dummar said the soldier was in a Land Rover, driving past a waving crowd, when a bullet smashed through the rear window and struck his leg. The wound was not believed to be life-threatening.

In the afternoon, Special Forces soldiers drove a speaker truck around town asking for help in finding the shooter.

"An American was shot in the area today," a Kurdish-American civilian working for the Special Forces said in Arabic. "If you were not responsible, don't be afraid. If you know who was responsible, turn them in. And don't carry weapons in the street."

Mosul appeared calmer Sunday after ethnic clashes between Kurds and Arabs. U.S. troops held the airport and guarded bridges and key intersections on main highways and streets. In the old city center, civilians armed with guns, clubs and metal pipes manned checkpoints to check for looters.

"Security seems to be improving. The shooting is not heard as often as before, and there are definitely far fewer casualties," said Dr. Ayad Al-Ramadhani, director of the Ibn Sina Teaching Hospital.

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

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