Battles fade

disorder grows

Resistance crumbles in north, and looting spreads as cities fall

Targeting Hussein's hometown

Troops still encounter heavy, street-level fighting in the west

War In Iraq

April 12, 2003|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The remnants of Saddam Hussein's military melted into the Iraqi countryside yesterday, as American and Kurdish forces entered the northern city of Mosul largely unchallenged, and troops closed in on Hussein's ancestral hometown of Tikrit, tightening around what could be the war's final battleground.

Organized fighting in the north all but vanished, with Iraq's regular army forces abandoning Mosul, leaving it to be plundered by fedayeen guerrillas and throngs of civilians. As in Baghdad, the crowds degenerated into a mob-like frenzy, looting government buildings, setting fires and rummaging through hotels, commercial buildings and the city's university. U.S. Special Forces entered the city to restore order but retreated to the outskirts after being fired upon by snipers.

In the western border town of Qaim, where American and British commandos waged heavy street-level fighting in recent days, Iraqi forces offered to surrender and walk away from their weapons, according to Pentagon officials. Iraqi fighters in the small town near Syria fought with such fervor that American military officials suspected they were protecting government leaders or banned weapons. Allied troops began searching the area late yesterday.

While American and British forces continued to encounter snipers and small firefights, many Iraqi soldiers throughout the country simply left the battle - much as Hussein's regime seemed to vanish from Baghdad two days earlier.

American commanders claimed little knowledge of Hussein's whereabouts yesterday, as they handed out decks of playing cards to the troops bearing pictures of the most-wanted members of the Iraqi regime. Hussein was the ace of spades.

According to news reports late last night, American intelligence officials said that they had intercepted communications in which former Iraqi officials said among themselves that they believed Hussein had been killed in Monday's bombing raid that targeted the Iraqi leader.

In the conversations, the Iraqis did not specifically refer to the circumstances in which Hussein was supposed to have been killed, the officials said.

But the U.S. officials said they were not certain that Hussein had been killed, citing the lack of physical evidence and the fact that forensic teams had not yet examined the site of the bombing raid on Monday in the Mansur neighborhood of Baghdad.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said at the Pentagon that he has seen conflicting information and is uncertain whether Hussein is dead or alive.

With the fall of Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, allied forces were arrayed in a broad swath of territory ringing the entire country, including the other population centers of Baghdad, Basra and Kirkuk. The last organized Iraqi force seemed to be centered 100 miles north of Baghdad in Tikrit, a spiritual center of the Sunni Muslim sect and the ancestral home of Hussein and many of his most loyal forces. Pentagon officials said they were preparing to face stiff resistance there.

Bush visits troops

President Bush visited injured American soldiers at hospitals in Washington and Bethesda yesterday and seemed pleased with the war's developments.

"The priority of this campaign is to rid the Iraqi people of any vestiges of Saddam Hussein and his regime so we cannot only free the people, but clear that country of weapons of mass destruction," Bush said at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

"I don't know the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein. I don't know if he's dead or alive. I do know he's no longer in power."

Bush echoed sentiments throughout his administration that the war is progressing but that any declared victory could still be far off.

"Yes, indeed, the regime has ended," said Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman. "But yes, indeed, fighting remains. It is still a battlefield."

Looting and near-rioting inflamed the volatile climate throughout Iraq, with mobs in Baghdad moving beyond the government and regime targets of the past few days to ransack stores, banks and Iraq's largest archaeological museum. In one section of the capital, civilians were reportedly defending their neighborhoods with Kalashnikov rifles, establishing checkpoints and searching passing cars for stolen goods.

Bands of youths wielding sticks roamed the northern city of Kirkuk as American paratroopers arrived to replace the Kurdish peshmerga fighters who seized the city Thursday. Turkey has threatened to send in troops to keep the city under control, a politically charged prospect that American forces were hoping to forestall.

Chaos spread throughout Mosul, and U.S. forces declared a curfew from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Looters smashed vaults at the central bank, and fights reportedly broke out among people trying to snatch stolen money from each other. The Associated Press reported that ambulances were taken from the city's main hospitals and that some doctors' cars were stolen at gunpoint.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.