The Washington Times

U.S., rebels take first key north city

April 11, 2003
Section: PAGE ONE

Page: A01

Rowan Scarborough and Bill Gertz, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Caption: Solemn pledge: President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair made their first direct televised addresses yesterday to the Iraqis, vowing to remove coalition forces as soon as Iraq has a democratic government in place. [2 Photos by AP]

A statue representing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was pulled down in Kirkuk, northern Iraq, yesterday after U.S. Army Green Berets and Kurdish rebels took over the major oil town amid little resistance. [Photo by AP]

The U.S.-led coalition yesterday captured its first major northern Iraqi city and encircled another, setting the stage to attack Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit in what promises to be the war's last major battle.

"If anyone starts throwing around ... 'Fortress Tikrit,' I don't think we're prepared to say that at this point," Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said at a Pentagon press conference. "But I think we are prepared to be very, very wary of what they may have and prepared for a big fight."

U.S. Army Green Berets and Kurdish rebels rode into the northern oil city of Kirkuk yesterday. They promptly knocked down a statue of the Iraqi dictator, in a scene reminiscent of one from the fall of Baghdad the day before.

Another key northern town, Mosul, was described by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld as being close to capitulation.

The defenders on the outside have surrendered to Kurdish forces, who entered Mosul this morning, local time. Inside the city, remnants of Saddam's Republican Guard and army have offered to give up if amnesty is granted and coalition bombing ends.

Lt. Col. Robert Waltemeyer, commander of a U.S. special forces unit near Dohuk, said a meeting to negotiate a surrender would take place this morning.

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the coalition's principal leaders, made their first direct televised addresses yesterday to the Iraqi people.

The U.S. military relayed the images via a special-operations aircraft called "Commando Solo." Both leaders promised that allied troops would be removed as soon as Iraq establishes an effective democratic government.

"We will not stop until Saddam's corrupt gang is gone," Mr. Bush said.

Swift battlefield victories this week leave Tikrit as the only major stumbling block to a complete takeover of Iraq. With the fall of Baghdad, the U.S.-led coalition yesterday turned its sights to the city, which is 100 miles north of Baghdad and home to 250,000 people, most of them Sunni Muslims.

Tikrit is Saddam's stronghold; about 20,000 members of his ancestral clan live there. He diverted huge amounts of oil revenues to the area to fund a 1990s building boom of schools, hospitals and upscale homes at a time when much of the rest of the country suffered economically.

Tikrit also is where some senior Ba'ath Party members may be hiding now that southern Iraq and Baghdad are in the hands of the coalition. Tikrit's defenses feature Iraq's only remaining organized fighting force.

There is a remaining Republican Guard brigade and some divisions of the lesser-equipped regular Iraqi army. The city also is protected by the Fedayeen Saddam, the suicidal guerrillas who have died by the thousands in battles with coalition forces.

"Tikrit is still there," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "Our impression is that a number of the forces that have left their positions in other parts of the country may very well be in that general area."

Air Force and Navy planes have been pounding those units for weeks. Attack jets released precision-guided 500-pound bombs to take down tanks, artillery pieces and armored personnel carriers.

Gen. McChrystal said the Pentagon does not have a good count of how many forces remain. It also is not known how the allies will engineer the fall of Tikrit. One option is to continue air strikes for days, then move forces from the Baghdad area to capture the city.

The general said, "We are trying to see whether it's a combination of Special Republican Guard elements, maybe some remnants of other forces, maybe some Ba'athists, Saddam Fedayeen, trying to judge their strength, trying to judge to what extent they have an integrated air defense, although we think we've taken most of that down."

In Baghdad, Army soldiers and Marines consolidated their positions and engaged in a number of ferocious firefights.

The U.S. forces were on guard for any type of terror-style attack. One occurred last night when a suicide bomber detonated a grenade as he approached a checkpoint near the downtown Palestine Hotel. Four Marines were wounded.

That morning, Marines killed bands of Fedayeen holed up in a mosque, a palace and the home of a Ba'ath leader. One Marine was killed.

The U.S. casualties underscored Mr. Rumsfeld's warning that Baghdad, though conquered, remains a dangerous place.

"We have not gone beyond the combat phase and that would be a misunderstanding of the situation," he said. "We had a number of people wounded today and yesterday, and it is still a very dangerous situation. There are people being killed."

Looting broke out from Basra to Baghdad as long-oppressed and impoverished Iraqis raided homes, businesses and offices belonging to the ruling party, which seized power 35 years ago.

An Associated Press reporter watched Iraqis clean out the German Embassy of its computers, air conditioners and furniture. The looters also went through the home of Saddam's oldest son, Uday.

Saddam, Uday, and his other son, Qusai, may have been killed in a bombing raid Monday on a Baghdad building in which a meeting of top officials took place.

Marine commanders ordered their troops to try to stop some of the looting, but the U.S. effort seemed disorganized at first.

"There's civilian looting like crazy, all over the place," said Lance Cpl. Darren Pickard, 20. Cpl. Pickard's assignment was to protect an Iraqi police academy.

At the U.S. Central Command forward headquarters in Doha, Qatar, Air Force Maj. Gen. Gene Renuart said that, for now, "our intent is not to be heavy-handed."

Gen. McChrystal said coalition troops must concentrate on fighting guerrillas and moving in humanitarian supplies.

"The focus right now has got to be on getting the death squads and the Special Republican Guard elements identified and defeated and out of the city, because that is the major threat," he said. "Looting is a problem, but it is not a major threat. People are not being killed in looting. So that's something we have to do as we have the time and capability to do it."

While Marines fought irregulars and looters, some Army soldiers rested at one of Saddam's lakeside palaces.

Army Sgt. Jason Graves, 28, took his civilian interpreter aboard a 24-foot, dual-engine Cris Craft, one of four boats in storage at the compound.

"Three days ago, we were fighting," Sgt. Graves said. "Now we're running around in a boat at Saddam's palace."

Despite the chaos after the regime's collapse, there were signs of stability. Baghdad International Airport grew busier with incoming flights of supplies and fresh troops. The Marines and Army soldiers took over the former Interior Ministry building and began forming a command center.

Allied commander Gen. Tommy Franks employed a heavy Army division, a Marine expeditionary task force and an Army helicopter assault division to conquer southern and central Iraq. In contrast, his northern strategy has relied on light forces and air strikes.

The Kurdish fighters from a U.S. protected zone in the north were organized by Army Green Berets and fought their way south. They captured territory in an operation that mirrored the U.S. victory in Afghanistan in 2001.

As they were in the south, air strikes have been key to destroying the tanks and artillery that protected the northern towns.

The joint U.S.-Kurdish units are in a position to seize the northern oil fields, some of which have been rigged to explode.

Gen. Renuart disclosed that one reason the allies were able to save the southern fields from a catastrophe is that workers heeded the warnings contained in air-dropped leaflets.

He said some Iraqis told coalition personnel that they did, as ordered by Saddam, affix explosives to the wells. But they also secretly shut off the valves so the oil below would not explode in flames if the explosives ignited.

The White House said that while Kurdish rebels entered Kirkuk, it and other northern towns will be run by Americans. Turkey is concerned that Iraqi Kurds to its north will attempt to conquer territory and set up an independent state - a move Washington and Ankara oppose.

*This article is based in part on wire-service reports.