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(AP) Marines pushed into Saddam Hussein's ancestral home Monday to fight what could be the last major battle as the rescue of seven U.S. prisoners sent spirits soaring back home. Iraq's cities seemed somewhat calmer, but the persistent lack of law and order served as a reminder that the country is far from secure.
U.S. forces attacked Tikrit from the south, west and north, Central Command spokesman Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said, capturing a key Tigris River bridge in the center of town and securing a presidential palace Monday as they searched for regime supporters. Everywhere they found military equipment that had apparently been abandoned by members of the Republican Guard.
"There was less resistance than we anticipated," Brooks said, noting that Tikrit, a power base for the minority Sunni Muslims who dominated Saddam's regime, had been subjected to punishing airstrikes for several days. He said there were no defenders at the palace.
Heavily armed U.S. soldiers could be seen near a marketplace in downtown Tikrit on Monday afternoon; few civilians were out. First Lt. Greg Starace of the 1st Marine Division estimated there were 3,000 U.S. troops in town.
"The people are very good with the Americans," Starace said. "At first, they're scared out of their minds, but when we reassure them that we mean them no harm they're actually really friendly, supportive."
Marines ran into three small pockets of resistance, he said. Helicopters fire eliminated a couple of pickup trucks with anti-aircraft guns, he said, and checkpoints were being established.
Marines were also working to secure the town of Samarra, about 30 miles to the south, where seven American POWs were rescued Sunday. Bedraggled but in good condition after three weeks in captivity, they said they had been shuffled from one jailer to the next as the regime crumbled, until finally their location was disclosed to Marines advancing north from Baghdad.
"We were a hot potato," said Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson, 30, of Fort Bliss, Texas, who had been shot through both her feet by a single bullet. "It was getting to the point where I believed they were going to kill us."
The POWs -- five members of the 507th Maintenance Company convoy ambushed March 23 and two Apache helicopter crewmen seized a day later -- were shown on Iraqi state television shortly after their capture, but had not been heard from since.
As they were flown to Kuwait for a medical checkup and a debriefing, they told reporters for The Washington Post and The Miami Herald that they were kicked and beaten at the time of their capture, and then taunted and interrogated. But they were regularly fed and given medical treatment -- three had gunshot wounds -- and they did not complain of torture.
The Pentagon lists four other Americans as missing in action.
Elsewhere, U.S. forces were working with local authorities to restore order to Iraq's cities after several days of lawlessness, along with power, water service and medical care, Brooks said. Government buildings, hospitals and schools in several cities have been damaged or gutted by looters.
Traffic police were recalled to patrol neighborhoods alongside British troops in the southern port of Basra. Iraqis have started accompanying U.S. troops on joint patrols in Baghdad, and Brooks said town leaders in Karbala have established a local police force.
In the northern oil center of Kirkuk, U.S. military personnel met with tribesmen, political and religious leaders Sunday to discuss ways to restore services. Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, also seemed calmer, with U.S. troops controlling the airport and guarding bridges and key intersections while civilians stood guard at checkpoints.
Looting in the capital city seemed to ease as Marines took sporadic but tough new measures to stop it. Iraqis have also launched neighborhood watch programs and civilian leaders are emerging to help maintain order.
In the first stirrings of Baghdad politics, a handful of religious and civil opposition leaders met Monday to discuss security and restoring power and water, as dozens of demonstrators outside protested the lack of basic services.
A ranking Shiite Muslim cleric, Ayad al-Musawi, told the gathering of about 20, including officials of the newly revived but still small police force, that there should be "no Sunni, no Shiite, just one Iraqi nation."
"God willing," he said, "we will be one hand, one voice and not betray each other."
An electricity board representative told the meeting power could be restored to east Baghdad within three to four days, and to west Baghdad within a week.
Marines fanning through Baghdad's neighborhoods have found large caches of weapons and ammunition, including about 80 Frog-7 missiles -- capable of carrying nuclear or chemical warheads -- discovered in large yellow trucks Monday, Capt. Daniel Schmitt said. They also found Russian-made anti-tank rocket launchers and French-made Roland missiles, Schmitt said.
Underscoring another difficulty the country's interim administration will face, a crowd in Najaf surrounded the home of Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric for some time, demanding he and other religious leaders leave the country. Bitter rivalries among Shiite factions in the holy city, some 100 miles south of Baghdad, have sparked several incidents.
The cleric, Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali al-Sistani, said in a statement on his official Web site that the "lives of the great religious authorities in Najaf are threatened." He also said the U.S.-led coalition forces "bear the responsibility" to prevent such threats. Tribal leaders intervened and cooled the situation.
In Washington, the Bush administration expressed growing frustration with Syria, where top members of Saddam's regime are believed to have fled. President Bush also contends Syria has chemical weapons. The Syrian Foreign Ministry denied both charges Monday, as President Bashar Assad held talks with British and Saudi envoys.
Saddam's whereabouts remained unclear. U.S. officials, trying to determine whether the vanished Iraqi president is dead, said forensics experts had DNA samples that could be used to match any remains of Saddam found at sites where bomb and missile attacks could have killed him.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)