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US forces storm Tikrit in last military assault

Tikrit, April 14 (Reuters): US Marines backed by tanks stormed into Saddam Hussein’s final stronghold today, seizing control of his hometown Tikrit in possibly the last major military action of the Iraq war.

Attack helicopters swooped low over one district, firing heavy machineguns to blast out lingering clusters of do-or-die defenders, while Marine patrols combed a bombed-out presidential palace in search of senior supporters of the ousted government.

US commanders said the fall of Tikrit, 175 km north of Baghdad, brought their 26-day military campaign to a “transition point”. The whereabouts of Saddam, who was born in a village near Tikrit in 1937, remained unknown.

US Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said at war headquarters in Qatar there could still be fighting, but that it would not be an “organised regime effort”. US forces now see the main threat as hit-and-run attacks by paramilitaries.

As the main thrust of the war effort eased, Washington upped pressure on Iraq’s neighbour Syria, which it says may be harbouring top Saddam loyalists and chemical weapons.

Secretary of state Colin Powell warned of possible diplomatic or economic measures. Syria denied the US charges.

In Baghdad, more than 2,000 Iraqi policemen reported back for work in a move that US authorities hope will help stop the orgy of looting that followed the dramatic collapse of Saddam’s 24-year iron-fisted rule last week.

Marines charged into Tikrit at dawn after a fierce overnight aerial bombardment of remnants of the Republican Guard.

There was no sign of the jubilation seen when other Iraqi cities fell. A statue of a resplendent Saddam on horseback stood unscathed and pristine pictures of him adorned lampposts.

However, some locals flashed thumbs-up signs and said they were glad that fighting appeared over.

“It’s a huge relief, we think of ourselves as peaceful people who got stuck with a dictator. Hopefully we’ll get a leader who respects people and lets them be in peace,” said 58-year old Hussein al-Khalidi.

Normality appeared to be slowly returning to Baghdad, battered by two weeks of air raids followed by four days of near anarchy. Some kiosks and food stores opened. Traffic jams once again started to clog the streets.

But the occasional crackle of gunfire could be heard in the distance, and, with water and power supplies still cut, a few hundred Iraqis demonstrated to complain about the lack of security and public services.

“Islamic state! Islamic state! Not American, not American!” dozens of protesters chanted.

US officials tried to hasten the return of Iraqi security forces across the capital, organising a meeting of hundreds of police. Some former Iraqi officers hurled abuse at Saddam and others attacked his statue with hammers and metal bars.

In the central city of Najaf, tribal leaders halted a siege by armed men of the home of Shia leader grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and took control of the spiritual centre where two clerics were hacked to death last week.

“The siege has ended,” said Mohammad Baqir Mohri, an aide to Sistani, whose home in the city had been surrounded on Saturday by groups demanding he leave Iraq. Sistani’s whereabouts were unknown but relatives said that he was safe.

The standoff highlighted how difficult it could be to cement national unity in Iraq. Shias make up 60 per cent of Iraq’s population of around 26 million and were persecuted for decades by Saddam’s secular Sunni-dominated Baath Party.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Washington’s main ally in the Iraq war, said he hoped elections could be held in Iraq within a year of an interim authority being established.

As Marines consolidated their position in Tikrit, US officials said Saddam’s half brother, Watban Ibrahim Hasan al-Tikriti, had been captured near the Syrian border.

Watban was on a US most-wanted list of 55 people. Saddam removed him as interior minister in 1995 but he remained an adviser.

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