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Iraq: Allies Shift Focus North Of Baghdad To Tikrit

Washington, 10 April 2003 (RFE/RL) - With central Baghdad under U.S. control, the focus of the coalition in Iraq shifted 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 about 160 kilometers north of the capital.

And despite the relative ease with which U.S. forces have cemented their control of central Baghdad, U.S. leaders say they have no illusions about how difficult a battle for Tikrit could be, especially if the core of Hussein's regime decides to make its last stand there.

That was the message of all the military spokesmen at briefings in Qatar, where the U.S. Central Command is directing the war. That was the message of both U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at yesterday's Pentagon press briefing.

And that was the message of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in an address to a convention of newspaper editors in Louisiana. "There may well be hard fighting yet ahead. [Iraqi] regime forces are still in control in northern Iraq in Mosul and Kirkuk and Tikrit. Yet the conclusion of the war will mark one of the most extraordinary military campaigns ever conducted," Cheney said.

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.

In the northern Iraqi city of Arbil, 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 at 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 the center of attention yesterday was in Baghdad. U.S. forces fought off intermittent resistance in various parts of the capital, particularly around Baghdad University. But for the most part, the city was the scene of jubilation: Iraqis swarming the streets to celebrate their freedom from Saddam.

In once scene reminiscent of Germans tearing down the Berlin Wall in 1989, Iraqis put a noose of steel cable around the neck of a statue of Saddam in Fardos Square in downtown Baghdad. Then they tried to pull the statue down.

The statue's strength resisted their efforts, and one burly man with a sledgehammer tried to weaken the sculpture by hacking at its base. That, too, proved fruitless. It was not until a unit of U.S. Marines offered help -- hitching the cable to the back of an armored vehicle -- that the statue finally toppled.

Later, at the Pentagon briefing in Washington, Rumsfeld commented on the destruction of the statue saying: "Saddam Hussein is now taking his rightful place alongside Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Ceausescu in the pantheon of failed brutal dictators, and the Iraqi people are well on their way to freedom."

There also were less ennobling scenes in the Iraqi capital. Evidently releasing decades of pent-up frustration, many Baghdad residents went on looting sprees, helping themselves to whatever they could carry. U.S. military officials said they seemed to be stealing mostly from Iraqi military units and offices of Saddam's Ba'ath Party.

And Baghdad's hospitals were filled beyond capacity. One, the Al-Kindi Hospital, had to cope with 30 bodies and 250 war wounded, over and above its ordinary complement of patients.

Nada Doumani, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said at the organization's headquarters in Geneva that as Iraqi and coalition forces shoot at each other, it is the ordinary Iraqis -- those whom the U.S. and British say they want to liberate -- who are bearing the brunt of the war.

"Civilians are being caught in the midst of this conflict, we've had a lot of civilian casualties since the beginning of this war and we really fear that it can even get worse, definitely. But it's already very bad," Doumani said.

Doumani said Red Cross personnel had to curtail their activities in Baghdad yesterday because of what she called the "chaotic" situation in the city. As a result, she said, there is no one to make sure that the capital's hospitals have proper water or other essential support.

Allied officials say they expect order will be restored to Baghdad once its residents temper their enthusiasm over the regime's demise.

Rumsfeld said the exuberance shown yesterday in Baghdad demonstrates that Iraqis are now convinced Hussein will no longer have control over them, and that this feeling will spread to other parts of the country.

But, like Cheney, the defense secretary said hard fighting remains before anyone can declare that this war is over. And even once the fighting ends, Rumsfeld said, the allies face the task of restoring water and electrical service, repairing roads and bridges, and healing the ill and wounded.

Rumsfeld said the Americans and the British also must make sure Iraq's weaponry -- and its senior leaders -- are not spirited out of the country. "We still need to find and secure Iraq's weapons of mass destruction facilities and secure Iraq's borders so we can prevent the flow of weapons of mass destruction materials and senior regime officials out of the country," he said.

For at least one man, though, the war is finished. Muhammad al-Duri, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, bade his personal farewell to arms yesterday in New York. "The game is over, I hope that peace will prevail," he said.

Stoically, al-Duri told reporters outside Iraq's UN mission that in any war, there are winners and there are losers. "So this," he said, "is the situation."