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Iraq: U.S. Troops In Hussein's Last Major Stronghold

Prague, 14 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. troops are now in the center of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown and the last major city controlled by his regime.

U.S. Marines entered Tikrit this morning as air strikes attacked remnants of the Republican Guard on the outskirts of the city. Correspondents say U.S. soldiers reached Tikrit's main square early today without encountering strong resistance. The U.S. military said it destroyed several Iraqi tanks and killed at least 15 Iraqi troops.

This morning's attack follows earlier reports that tribal leaders there were negotiating a cease-fire with the Americans.

Tikrit is dominated by the clan of Saddam Hussein, who was born in a nearby village. U.S. military planners earlier suggested that troops loyal to the deposed Iraqi leader might make a last stand there. But most appeared to have been killed by earlier air strikes or to have fled.

With most Iraqi cities now under coalition control, the focus more and more is on restoring law and order and on finding new leaders to run the country.

Widespread looting and violence broke out in Baghdad and other cities following the collapse of the regime. International aid officials, as well as ordinary Iraqis, complained that U.S. and British troops were not doing enough to stem the chaos.

In Baghdad, there are signs U.S. troops have begun to respond to those complaints. Hundreds of Iraqi policemen and public service workers have now answered appeals from U.S. troops and an Iraqi police commander to come forward and help tackle disorder in the city

Two thousand Iraqi policemen reported for work in the capital this morning. That's out of 40,000 that formed the police force before the capital fell to U.S. troops last week.

U.S. and Iraqi security forces are expected to start their first joint patrols in the capital today.

British troops have made similar efforts in Basra and Faw in the south, where local police and British forces have already begun their first joint patrols.

U.S. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday that order is gradually returning to the country. He told an American news show, "Every hour that goes by, it's getting better and more peaceful and more orderly."

And British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw made similar comments today in Bahrain at the start of a Persian Gulf tour. "My understanding as far as Baghdad is concerned is that there are improvements there. Baghdad is a very large city -- 5 million people. We have, first of all, to make it secure and ensure that the United States troops are not a target for killing if they get out of their armored personnel carriers," Straw said.

The task of finding new leaders for the country may prove to be harder. The U.S. plans a short period of military rule to be followed by an interim administration. This should include Iraqis from inside the country, as well as opposition members based abroad.

Opposition groups are expected to hold the first of a series of meetings designed to draw up this transitional government tomorrow in Nasiriyah.

There are several contenders for the top post of leading an interim authority, but the Iraqi opposition is fractured, and many of its leaders enjoy little support inside the country. Some contenders are either too close to the country's various ethnic and religious groups or are tainted by alleged misdeeds under Saddam's rule.

In other war-related news:

-- U.S. officials said a top aide of Hussein has been captured near the Syrian border and is now in U.S custody. He is Saddam's half brother, Watban Ibrahim Hasan al-Tikriti, a former interior minister and one of 55 Iraqi officials on a U.S wanted list.

-- In Najaf, south of Baghdad, an aide to a senior Shi'ite leader besieged by armed men since 12 April said today that the standoff is now over. A radical Shia group had demanded Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani leave Iraq within 48 hours. But an aide, Muhammad Baqir Mohri, said today tribal leaders have ended the siege of Sistani's home and are now in control of the city.

-- U.S. troops found seven prisoners of war safe and well north of Baghdad and flew them to Kuwait.

-- The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank say they will send fact-finding teams to Iraq as soon as it is safe to assess the scale of the task of rebuilding the country.