Focus of battle shifts north

Sun National Staff

WASHINGTON -- U.S. forces battled remnants of Iraq's army yesterday by helping Kurdish fighters capture a key city in the country's oil-rich north and engaging in scattered gunbattles in Baghdad.

Farther south, U.S. troops encountered more of the kind of violence that had been feared before the war began, as Iraqis fought Iraqis as well as the Americans.

At least one Marine died and as many as 22 were injured in fighting in Baghdad, including a fierce firefight at a mosque where an informant said Saddam Hussein might be hiding. When the fighting ended, there was no sign of Hussein.

Four other Marines were wounded, two seriously, by a suicide bomber in the heart of downtown, not far from the east bank of the Tigris River. There were more civilian casualties, too, including three Iraqis killed by U.S. forces when they drove their car straight for an American military vehicle.

"Baghdad's still an ugly place," said Maj. Gen. Gene Renuart Jr., operations director of U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar.

Early today U.S. troops were ordered to put a stop to looters who have run wild in the capital amid celebrations over Saddam's fall. The 7th Marine Regiment planned to enforce a dusk-to-dawn curfew beginning this evening in the area it patrols in eastern Baghdad.

Real peace has yet to settle on either the countryside or the cities, and a wide strip of Iraq north of Baghdad has not yet seen American forces. U.S. forces, however, are heading for the area and a possible last stand for Hussein's regime in the city of Tikrit.

There were fresh reports of chaos in cities no longer under the control of Hussein's government but not yet firmly in the hands of U.S. or British soldiers, or anyone else.

In cities where forces loyal to Hussein's regime have been overthrown, the U.S. military says it is trying to enlist the help of traditional local religious and tribal leaders, who are starting to reassert leadership roles they had held before the three-decade reign of Hussein's Baath Party.

"That gives us a natural avenue to restore order and to begin to put some structure back into the communities," Renuart said.

But U.S.-led forces in Basra, near the Persian Gulf coast, discovered how difficult that approach can be when they gave a leading role to a local sheik, only to learn that he had ties to Hussein's regime. They found out the hard way: when an angry mob began stoning the sheik's house.

In much of Basra and elsewhere in Iraq, including Baghdad, civil authority was nonexistent, and looting was widespread. Among the buildings ransacked in the capital was the two-story home of Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tarik Aziz. As U.S. troops looked the other way, Iraqis toted away prizes that included books in Arabic and English from his private library and a stack of Vanity Fair magazines.

There was no sign of Aziz or other top officials from Iraq's government, including Hussein and his sons. U.S. officials said again that they do not know Hussein's whereabouts, or whether he was still alive.

In the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, a crowd stormed a mosque and killed two Shiite clerics. Some reports said they were hacked to death with swords and knives.

One of those killed, Haider al-Kadar, was a widely reviled Hussein loyalist and a member of the government's ministry of religion. The other, Abdul Majid al-Khoei, was a recently returned exile who had counseled cooperation with U.S. troops.

In a goodwill gesture, al-Khoei, the son of a prominent Shiite spiritual leader, had accompanied the Hussein loyalist to a reconciliation meeting at the gold-domed shrine of Imam Ali, one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites. They were reportedly attacked by members of a group loyal to another Shiite leader, Mohammed Baqer al-Sadr, who were outraged over al-Kadar's presence.

Al-Khoei apparently pulled a gun to stop the mob and fired one or two shots, the Associated Press reported. At that point, both men were rushed by the crowd and killed. No U.S. troops were nearby because of an agreement with local religious leaders to remain at least 500 yards from the mosque.

If the incident showcased the enormity of the task facing U.S. soldiers as they try to pacify Iraq after the fall of Hussein's regime, the military action hundreds of miles to the north signaled the approaching end of any organized Iraqi resistance.

American bombers and special operations teams have spent weeks attacking Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, about 100 miles north of Baghdad. As many as 10,000 Iraqi soldiers, and possibly senior members of Hussein's regime, are thought to have retreated to Tikrit.

Army Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal told reporters at the Pentagon that American commanders "are prepared for a big fight" in Tikrit, though how much resistance the city's defenders will put up is unclear.

Sixty miles to the northwest of Hussein's home base, Iraqi defenders abandoned the key city of Kirkuk without a fight, clearing the way for U.S. and Kurdish forces to enter nearby oilfields, where a towering plume of black smoke rose from at least one burning well. The Kurds reportedly entered the city in spite of an explicit U.S. request to stay out.

Also near collapse last night was Mosul, about 75 miles from the Turkish border and the largest city in the north. Kurdish forces said the remaining military units loyal to Hussein's government had offered to surrender in exchange for amnesty and an end to U.S. bombing.

In Washington, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said small numbers of U.S. and Kurdish forces had started entering Mosul to begin the process of taking weapons from Iraqi forces.

"It is an orderly process and the forces that are entering are being welcomed by the people," he said.

Lt. Col. Robert Waltemeyer, commander of a U.S. special forces unit to the north near Dohuk, said a meeting with Mosul leaders would occur this morning.

"I am prepared to meet with leaders to establish secure zones within the city," Waltemeyer said. "We will work around the clock to set the conditions for a political solution in Mosul."

American officials moved quickly to calm Turkish fears that the fall of Kirkuk might prompt the Kurds to seize control of the oilfields.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said he had agreed to let Turkey send a group of military observers into the area, and Kurdish commanders said they would pull back from Kirkuk once more U.S. forces move in to secure the city. A column of American tanks and armored personnel carriers, airlifted to northern Iraq from Germany in recent days, was expected to arrive in Kirkuk today.

The northern cities fell one day after Baghdad celebrated the end of Hussein's 24-year reign in the capital. Scattered, but fierce, firefights continued in the city's tense streets, and U.S. forces still have yet to enter about half the neighborhoods.

Food supplies in Baghdad were said to be ample, but power remained out to much of the area. That made it difficult, if not impossible, for most the city's 5 million residents to watch a television broadcast by President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose taped remarks were beamed by airborne U.S. transmitters.

Speaking in English, with Arabic subtitles, Bush told Iraqis that the war "will not stop until Saddam's corrupt gang is gone." He promised that U.S.-led forces "will help maintain law and order, so that Iraqis can live in security."

He also said that once United States "help you build a peaceful and representative government that protects the rights of all citizens ... our military forces will leave."

In the first step toward establishing an interim civilian administration, the United States plans to hold a meeting soon on Iraqi soil of leaders opposed to Hussein's regime.

Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi exile favored by Bush administration hard-liners, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld, had helped arrange such a meeting for tomorrow near Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq. Chalabi recently staged a rally there after being ushered into the region by U.S. troops.

But after Cheney announced the Saturday meeting, officials at the State Department succeeded in delaying it for several days, reportedly in an attempt to broaden participation and reduce Chalabi's influence.

Critics have charged that the meeting is part of a Bush administration plan to install Chalabi as the leader of a post-Hussein government. They also say that a new Iraqi government can succeed only if it is perceived by the people of Iraq as truly independent of the United States.

Also yesterday, Army Ranger Capt. Russell B. Rippetoe became the first casualty of the Iraq war to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was killed in an April 3 car bomb attack at a checkpoint 130 miles northwest of Baghdad.

Rippetoe, 27, was from Arvada, Colo., but his parents moved to Gaithersburg last month after his mother, Rita, was promoted to a Justice Department job in Washington.

With the war now in its 23rd day, 105 Americans have been killed, seven captured and 11 are missing in action, according to the Pentagon, whose official reports lag behind the actual totals. A total of 31 British soldiers have also been killed.

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