| A looter caught inside a bank by a US soldier in Baghdad. US forces detained suspected thieves for the first time in the Iraqi capital on Sunday. (AFP)
Baghdad, April 13 (Reuters): Marines entered the birthplace of Saddam Hussein today, advancing into the northern town of Tikrit in a sign that the 25-day-old war was in its last phase.
US troops battled the Iraqi army in Saddam’s home town, sending attack helicopters and F-18 aircraft into the last significant town outside their control.
In Baghdad and Basra, life started returning to normal as Iraqis volunteered to help restore law and order and rebuild the war-scarred cities.
But in the holy city of Najaf, friction between Shia factions flared. An aide to a top Shia cleric said an armed group surrounded his house and gave him 48 hours to leave.
Military planners had expected that remnants of the Iraqi army and Baath Party might mount a last stand in Tikrit, dominated by the clan of Saddam, who was born in a nearby village.
“This morning, Iraqi infantry came out of their holes to fight the Marines in their light armoured vehicles. About 15 Iraqis died in that exchange, no Americans,” Matthew Fisher of Canada’s National Post newspaper told CNN from Tikrit.
After nightfall, the Marines battled Iraqi troops on the southern outskirts of the town. “It’s a very, very significant attack. They’ve brought forward a great number of Cobra assault helicopters and there are Marine F-18s (aircraft) overhead,” Fisher said. He said troops had been told there was a core of about 2,500 Republican Guard and Saddam Fidayeen in the town.
However, armed men in Tikrit told al Jazeera that tribal leaders were negotiating a ceasefire with US forces and that Iraqi troops and paramilitaries had left.
General Tommy Franks, who has commanded the US-led war in Iraq, said that although the core Iraqi army had been destroyed, militia, death squads and foreign fighters were battling on.
“Until we have a sense that we have all of that under control, then we will probably not characterise the initial military phase as having been completed and the regime totally gone,” he told CNN.
Normality slowly returned to Baghdad with street-traders and kiosks selling food and cigarettes for the first time since US troops seized the Iraqi capital.
Thousands of Iraqis who had fled the fighting drove back into the city with furniture and clothes strapped to their cars.
It was an emotional homecoming for 42-year-old Daoud Kashash Hussein. “I am so happy,” he said as he hugged his tearful 70-year-old father, who had remained in Baghdad.
But scores of residents protested in central Baghdad, angry that power and water supplies were still disrupted. Some accused US forces of being concerned only about oil rather than getting the country back on its feet.
“They have operated some of the oil facilities, but they are not operating the power and water systems because they are just after the oil,” said 42-year-old civil servant Ali Zuhair.
Anxious to restore calm in Baghdad, hundreds of Iraqi police and civil servants responded to US calls to meet in the city centre and discuss returning to service. Baghdad police, fearing they would be mistaken for combatants, had quit their patrols and stayed at home. The gathering even caused a small traffic jam for the first time since the war began on March 20.
Iraqi officials said local police should gather tomorrow at the police training college, health workers at a hospital and electricity workers at one of Baghdad’s power stations. There they would be assigned duties.
US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in Washington: “Every hour that goes by, it’s getting better and more orderly in that country.”
President George W. Bush warned Syria against offering Saddam safe haven. “Syria just needs to cooperate with the US and our coalition partners, not harbour any Baathists, any military officials, any people who need to be held to account.”
The US-led forces have so far arrested just one senior Iraqi official — Saddam’s top scientific adviser, General Amer Hammoudi al-Saadi. US intelligence officials believe he could be the key to unlocking secrets about Iraq’s weapons programmes. But Saadi insisted Iraq had no banned chemical or biological arms — the ostensible reason for the war.