By Andrew F. Tully/Kathleen Knox
Prague, 10 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- There are reports of a fierce firefight in Baghdad today between U.S. troops and forces loyal to Saddam Hussein.
U.S. Marines clashed with forces thought to be Special Republican Guards near a mosque where U.S. troops believe Saddam might be hiding. One marine was reported killed and 13 wounded in the fighting. U.S. planes also attacked targets on the west bank of the Tigris.
The clashes came just hours after Saddam's rule in the capital collapsed yesterday amid scenes of jubilation and widespread looting.
Marines yesterday helped cheering Iraqis topple a giant statue of Saddam in the city center, and Baghdad residents elsewhere welcomed American troops and attacked symbols of the regime.
U.S. political and military leaders hailed what they called the liberation of Baghdad but cautioned that the war is not yet over. "There is a lot more fighting that's going to be done, more people are going to be killed. Let there be no doubt, this is not over despite all the celebrations on the street," U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said.
For at least one man, though, the war appeared to be near an end. Muhammad al-Duri, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters yesterday in New York, "The game is over, I hope that peace will prevail."
Al-Duri's comments were the first admission by an Iraqi official that Saddam's control of the country appears to be waning. Other Iraqi diplomats said they had lost contact with Baghdad. The Iraqi Embassy in Beijing said they are waiting for orders from a new government. But Iraq's ambassador to Vietnam vowed to fight on and denied the Americans had captured Baghdad.
With central Baghdad under U.S. control, the focus of the coalition in Iraq has shifted north to Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, where a major battle may be looming.
Already, allied warplanes have been bombing Tikrit, and U.S. and British ground forces have been moving steadily toward the city, located about 160 kilometers north of the capital. U.S. leaders say a battle for Tikrit could be difficult, especially if the core of Saddam's regime decides to make its last stand there.
Mosul and Kirkuk also are the focus of Kurdish fighters who are closing in on the oil centers in northern Iraq with the help of allied air and ground support. There is no indication when the cities might come under attack, but the Kurds were just outside Kirkuk, and early yesterday took a strategic mountain overlooking Mosul.
Hoshiyar Zebari, a senior official of the Kurdish Democratic Party, said that when the Kurds overran Mount Maqlub near Mosul early yesterday, the Iraqi forces left behind many large weapons, including antiaircraft radar and other surveillance equipment. "I would characterize it as the most significant gain in the northern campaign military activity that's taking place. It shows that the Iraqi army is completely demoralized. Otherwise they would not have given up this position so easily," Zebari said.
But along with the jubilation, there are also worries about lawlessness. The regime is no longer controlling Baghdad and no one has stepped in to fill the vacuum. Looting is widespread in the capital and getting worse in Basra, Iraq's second city.
Iraq's envoy in Japan, Qasim Shakir, warned today that law and order must prevail to prevent a civil war. "I hope order will prevail upon Baghdad and I hope these forces will try to enforce order, and stop the looting of public places. And I hope they will prevent any eruption of civil war in Baghdad," he said.
Baghdad's hospitals are also overwhelmed with patients and running out of water, power, and medicine. The Red Cross curtailed its activities in Baghdad yesterday because of what it called the "chaotic" situation in the city. The announcement came after a Canadian team member was killed in the capital.
Allied officials say they expect order will be restored to Baghdad once its residents temper their enthusiasm over the apparent demise of the Saddam regime.