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Looting And Celebrations In Baghdad As Regime Crumbles

Prague, 9 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- After a relatively quiet night in the Iraqi capital, thousands of U.S. Marines this morning are moving block by block through Saddam City, a sprawling, mostly Shiite neighborhood in northeast Baghdad that is home to some 2 million people.

Only sporadic resistance is being reported. A Reuters correspondent with the Marines says soldiers have been encountering cheering crowds in Saddam City. Agencies also quote witnesses as saying looters are breaking into government buildings and some shops in the area and taking food, furniture, and equipment.

Some clashes were also reported in the early morning around the main presidential palace on the west bank of the Tigris River, where U.S. Army units have been battling scattered groups of Iraqi fighters for the past two days.

Coalition aircraft regularly overfly the area, providing support to U.S. troops on the ground. A reporter for AFP says U.S. troops have also entered the northwestern section of the Iraqi capital.

U.S. forces say they now control key government buildings and palaces in the center of Baghdad. The U.S. military has also taken control of the Rasheed military airport in the southeast, where they say they captured enough ammunition for some 3,000 troops.

Some shooting has also been heard in the south of the capital.

In northern Iraq, meanwhile, a senior Kurdish leader says U.S. special forces and Kurdish fighters have seized a strategic hilltop near the city of Mosul.

Hoshyar Zebari of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party told journalists that the area, called Maqloub, had been heavily defended by Iraqi forces and acted as a hub for air defenses against coalition airstrikes. Control of the hilltop means no major Iraqi defenses now remain between Kurdish-U.S. forces and the center of Mosul, 15 kilometers away.

On the diplomatic front, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is in Paris for talks with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin on plans for postwar Iraq. Speaking at a news conference a short time ago, Straw said it appears fighting in Iraq may be heading toward a conclusion: "We all hope, desperately, that the conflict comes to an end. It looks as though we may be towards the close of hostilities."

Britain and France stood on opposite sides on the question of using military force in Iraq. Now that an end to the fighting may be nearing, London has been pushing for a reconciliation between European governments initially opposed to war and those that joined the United States-led coalition. Britain is also strongly promoting the need for a major United Nations role in rebuilding postwar Iraq.

Most American officials agree that the UN should have an important role in humanitarian relief projects. But the U.S. administration is wary about a UN political role, such as organizing a conference to form an interim Iraqi government -- as happened in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Yesterday's meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair near Belfast failed to clarify the issue.