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Saddam home in America’s sights

As Sayliya Camp, Qatar, April 9 (Reuters): The US military said today it expected any fighting for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s birthplace of Tikrit to be no different to earlier battles during the 21-day-old war.

Officials said it was too early to talk of the war to overthrow Saddam being over, despite scenes of jubilation in parts of Baghdad as US forces swept into the capital.

US Brigadier-general Vincent Brooks told a briefing at the Central Command headquarters in Qatar that the US had noted a build-up of Iraqi forces around Saddam’s home town, possibly as a result of a concerted US-led push on the capital Baghdad.

“We’ve seen there have been some forces deployed in and around the Tikrit area. Many of them have moved as we were having more and more success on the south-western side of Baghdad and the south-eastern side of Baghdad,” Brooks said.

“There’s been some repositioning to try and reinforce those initial defences. The amount of force that remains in Tikrit... we are still making assessments of (this).

“We anticipate that any fighting that would occur there, if we happen to go to Tikrit, would be similar to what we’ve seen in other parts of the country,” Brooks said.

He said resistance could come from a combination of conventional military forces, irregular forces and those still loyal to Saddam’s Baath Party.

“I’m not predisposed as to when we might go in that direction...but we’re certainly focused on Tikrit to prevent the (Saddam) regime from being able to use it as a place to command and control, to restore command and control, or to hide,” he said.

As the US Army and Marines have increased their control around Baghdad, there has been some speculation that Saddam may stage a “last stand” at Tikrit.

“I think it’s premature to talk about the end of this operation yet,” US Captain Frank Thorp said.

“There may be many more fierce fighting days in front of us as coalition forces continue to move within Baghdad and within the country,” he said as jubilant crowds and hordes of looters took over Baghdad streets now empty of police and authority.

Thorp noted that half of the country north of Baghdad had not been occupied by US-led forces. That included Saddam’s home city of Tikrit, 175 km north of the capital, where US officials have said resistance could be stiff.

“We continue to strike Tikrit and other cities in the north with air power just as we did in Baghdad, in the south in Basra, Nasiriyah, Najaf and other cities,” Thorp said.

“It’s a little too early to assess the resistance in Tikrit as at this time operations are mostly from the air in our effort to shape the battlefield.”

An official at the Central Command said the hope was that Tikrit would reach a “tipping point” on its own, at which Saddam’s administration would collapse without the fighting the US forces faced when taking Baghdad and cities to the south.

“We’re engaging them hard, hitting remnants of the Republican Guard,” he said, adding that the Central Command was not pretending the Saddam stronghold could be taken without a fight.

Thorp said special operations forces were combining with air strikes to hit command and control locations and Iraqi troops in Tikrit, where the Adnan Division of Saddam's crumbling Republican Guard was still holding out.

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