BAGHDAD, Iraq—Saddam Hussein's top scientific adviser surrendered Saturday—a possible breakthrough in the hunt for hidden chemical and biological weapons—as U.S. forces reached Saddam's home city of Tikrit and struggled elsewhere to restore order.
Amer al Saadi, one of the U.S. military's 55 most-wanted Iraqis, turned himself over to Marines in Baghdad, officers said. The highest-ranking Iraqi to fall into U.S. hands, he was expected to undergo intense questioning.
"He is a big fish," a Marine intelligence officer said of the 64-year-old nuclear scientist. "A really big fish."
At the same time, officers said a "significant" Marine contingent advanced on Tikrit, the last major city left to fall. Earlier, a U.S. Special Forces unit drove through the ancestral hometown of Iraq's now-deposed strongman and found abandoned military outposts and government buildings that had been looted.
The larger Marine force was believed headed to the airport south of Tikrit, which sits about 80 miles north of Baghdad.
Earlier Saturday, firefights erupted between Marines and Iraqi fighters in central Baghdad and outlying neighborhoods of the turbulent capital. One Marine died, and raising the U.S. military toll to 114 dead, with many more wounded.
Looters again plundered the capital of 5 million people. In an ominous turn of events, Marines said they found dozens of explosive-stuffed vests in a Baghdad school and empty hangers—evidence that some vests were missing, possibly taken by suicide bombers still at large.
In the ransacked northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, some measure of stability returned as U.S. forces or their Kurdish allies patrolled the streets. But ethnic violence flared between Arabs and Kurds, reportedly leaving dozens dead in the region.
"The war begins now, the war with ourselves," a man named Ala'a said as he watched crowds gleefully loot a bank in southwest Baghdad.
On a happier note, U.S. and British military officials signaled that combat was diminishing: They said two of the three U.S. aircraft battle groups in the Persian Gulf could be sent home within days and 2,000 British troops were returning to England.
Also Saturday, rescued prisoner of war Jessica Lynch returned to the United States aboard a military transport plane that carried 50 other injured soldiers. Accompanied by relatives, the 19-year-old soldier was taken to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Marine officers said al Saadi surrendered at the Palestine Hotel in central Baghdad during a meeting of Marine officers and American civilian reconstruction specialists. He told journalists staying at the hotel that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.
Marine troops took him away to a counter-intelligence interrogation center.
U.S. intelligence officials said al Saadi was in charge of Saddam's secret programs for developing, testing and producing banned nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. They said they believed he could pinpoint hidden production facilities, but not the locations of chemical and biological warheads.
Meanwhile at the Kirkuk Military Airport, U.S. soldiers said they found a warhead ringed by a green band recognized by international experts as a symbol of chemical agents.
Initial tests by a hand-held vapor monitor found trace amounts of an unspecified nerve agent, according to Lt. Rafael Camporese, a chemical weapons officer for the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, whose soldiers found the warhead during a routine patrol.
Later, a U.S. officer said the warhead appeared to contain conventional explosives. More sophisticated tests were planned.
The airbase's former Iraqi commander told U.S. officers that members of Saddam's regime recently brought chemical weapons there and ordered their use on nearby Kurdish cities.
Instead, the weapons were hidden, the former Iraqi colonel told American officials, according to Capt. John Guerrero, a U.S. intelligence officer. He said the Iraqi's story has not been verified.
"He told us that the chemical attack on Halabja originated from this installation," Guerrero said, referring to Saddam's use of poison gas on the Kurdish city of Halabja in 1988. Five thousand men, women and children died in that attack.
Previous reports of suspected chemical or biological weapons in Iraq have proven erroneous or have not yet been confirmed. The discovery and confiscation of such weapons is a key objective of President Bush and his military commanders, who argued that a main reason for the war was disarming Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.
During his weekly radio address, Bush said Saturday that "hard fighting" still could occur but Saddam was gone and "soon, the good and gifted people of Iraq will be free to choose their leaders who respect their rights and reflect their character."
The fate of Saddam remained unknown and U.S. military officials said they would offer bounties for the capture of Iraq's former strongman and his top aides. "The price tags vary," said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks.
He said American troops in Baghdad had reached the rubble created Monday by an air strike that targeted Saddam and his sons. "We have not searched rock by rock, stone by stone," Brooks said.
In northern Iraq, travelers coming from Tikrit said Iraqi army and Baath Party leaders had fled, but large numbers of heavily armed pro-Saddam paramilitaries remained in the city.
"It is too dangerous in Tikrit," Mohammad Jassem Hassan, an Arab driver, said about 25 miles northeast of the city. "There are large numbers of gunmen there and they have different kinds of weapons. They want to fight."
Nevertheless, U.S. commanders did not expect a major battle in Tikrit. They said many Iraqi soldiers already have fled or have been killed by air strikes.
"If Tikrit falls, that's just one more city," Brooks said at allied headquarters in Qatar. "There would still be work to be done beyond that. We still have a tremendous amount of work to be done in the weapons of mass destruction program."
He said U.S. and British troops also continued to target special security organizations, intelligence services, paramilitary forces and other agencies that strengthened Saddam's grip on power.
"Any place we find there is evidence of the regime," he said, "we must go and put an end to it."
Many other challenges remained, not least of which involved military security and domestic tranquility.
U.S. Green Beret troops and Kurdish troopers patrolled portions of Mosul, but portions of Iraq's third largest city—with 600,000 people in the commercial center and twice that many in adjoining areas—remained mired in chaos and violence.
Terrified Arab residents said gangs of Kurds killed Arab civilians at random and robbed their homes at gunpoint. Dozens of people died in the spiraling Kurdish-Arab violence, most from gunshot wounds.
Residents of Arab neighborhoods quickly formed impromptu militias, posting armed guards on rooftops and firing warning shots at anyone arousing suspicions.
In Baghdad, residents of poor neighborhoods streamed into the once-posh Mansour district of private homes belonging to the Baath Party elite.
They streamed out again pushing wheelbarrows and supermarket carts filled with rolled up mattresses, carpets, refrigerators and other household items.
The U.S. military asked former police officers and engineers to reapply for their jobs in Baghdad, a crucial step toward restoring order and basic services.
Most U.S. troops retained a permissive attitude toward the looting. When some squads attempted to intervene, the efforts proved fleeting and largely futile.
Every time troops visited an Iraqi military building or office of Saddam's Baath Party in southwest Baghdad, dozens of people followed in their wake, stripping the place bare.
Also Saturday, in a more hopeful sign, the first two humanitarian aid flights landed at Baghdad International Airport, carrying food, water and medicine.
"We see this as a very important step and it will be followed by many more steps in the days and weeks ahead," Brooks said.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Ken Dilanian in Kirkuk; Jonathan S. Landay in Kirkuk; Mark McDonald in Mosul; Carol Rosenberg in Baghdad; and Juan O. Tamayo with the Marines near Baghdad contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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