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Last Saddam stronghold falls; major combat over, U.S. officer says

TIKRIT, Iraq—The Pentagon declared the end of significant fighting in Iraq on Monday as Marines stormed the heart of Tikrit, suppressed hard-core resistance there and captured the last stronghold of Saddam Hussein.

"The major combat operations are over," Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said after more than 3,000 Marines fought their way to the center of Saddam's ancestral hometown.

In Washington, the Bush administration's attention already was shifting to two post-war concerns.

The White House and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld turned up the pressure on Syria, demanding that it stop harboring Iraqi fugitives and renounce terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, even as British Prime Minister Tony Blair denied any U.S.-British plans to invade Syria.

U.S. officials also looked forward to a meeting Tuesday in Nasiriyah, where they hoped to begin forging an interim government for post-Saddam Iraq by welding together rival ethnic, religious and exile factions.

The military action, however, focused on the Marines' success in securing Tikrit.

They seized an opulent presidential palace and rolled their armored vehicles along the city's broad boulevards. They watched white flags flutter from taxicabs, cement homes and mud huts. They accepted roses from a few grateful residents—and stayed alert for suicide attacks by the remnants of pro-Saddam militias.

Tikrit was the last important center of Saddam's regime, and now it had fallen—much like Basra, Nasiriyah, Najaf, Karbala, Kut, Kirkuk, Irbil, Mosul and Baghdad.

"There is nothing beyond Tikrit," said Marine Lt. Col. Doug Hardison. "That is it. It's now just a function of when to call the win."

Said McChrystal: "Tikrit was the last area where we anticipated seeing major combat formations."

Iraqi forces once again evaporated and large concentrations of Iraqi troops no longer existed anywhere, McChrystal and others said, though they cautioned that small-scale battles remained likely.

The war began on March 20, less than four weeks ago. The U.S. military death toll: at least 118, with many more wounded. Saddam's fate remained unknown. No confirmed discoveries have been made of chemical or biological weapons—the primary justification President Bush cited for resorting to war.

U.S. troops in Karbala reportedly found 11 large containers that officers said Monday might have served as mobile chemical weapons labs. Experts prepared to examine the 20-foot-by-20-foot containers. Previous reports of possible chemical or biological weapons have not been confirmed or have turned out to be false.

At the same time, a measure of calm returned to Baghdad as 2,000 Iraqi officers, working with U.S. Marines, patrolled the capital's streets for the first time since the city fell last week—and collapsed into chaos.

Looting diminished—but did not disappear—in Baghdad as Iraqis formed neighborhood watches. U.S. military engineers began working with Iraqis to restore water and power to the city.

Electricity also remained out in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, but hospitals and many citizens there have generators. British engineers plan to arrive within a few weeks to repair the southern city's five major power grids.

"It's a transition period we're in right now," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said at allied headquarters in Qatar. "Gradually, the indications of everyday life are returning to Iraq, and Iraqis are adjusting to freedom from the tyranny of the regime."

But significant danger remained—for Iraqis and Americans:

In Baghdad as many as 17 Iraqi civilians died and scores were wounded in a huge blast accidentally detonated by children playing with Iraqi explosives. Bands of diehard fighters still roamed the city. And U.S. troops found 80 missiles, 51 trucks loaded with ammunition and large caches of weapons.

"Troops have to ensure their own safety and security from armed gangs before they can start any policing activities," said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. "This is not a benign policing environment."

Straw and other British officials also sought to calm concerns that U.S. and British forces soon might target Syria, which shares Iraq's northwestern border and allegedly has provided refuge to members of Saddam's inner circle.

Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Syria had a "well-corroborated" chemical weapons program and must stop harboring Iraqi officials.

Syria denied the charges.

In London, Blair assured members of Parliament that "there are no plans whatsoever to invade Syria."

His foreign minister, Straw, said: "What we want from Syria are assurances that this has been stopped ... to ensure that fugitives from justice are brought to justice."

(EDITORS: END OPTIONAL TRIM)

Back in Tikrit, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, the Marines suffered no casualties as they easily overwhelmed small pockets of resistance from Saddam's militiamen during the push into the city from the west.

"There were small groups of three to 10 guys," said Lt. Greg Starace of Paramus, N.J., whose 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance unit of grime-covered armored personnel carriers sat on a bridge spanning the Tigris River. "They'd pop some mortars and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) at us. We'd prosecute the targets and they'd be killed or flee."

There was no jubilant welcome for the Americans to Tikrit as there had been elsewhere in Iraq. Some cars flying white flags ventured onto the streets, but were stopped and turned around by rifle-toting U.S. troops nervous about suicide attacks.

Nor were there ferocious hordes of looters who had descended like locusts elsewhere in Iraq, stripping buildings to their shells and torching what was left.

The absence of extremes perhaps reflected public exhaustion.

"We have no electricity. My children are afraid of the helicopters. I want them to leave," said Kassam Kasooma Ramavan, owner of a small restaurant on Tikrit's main boulevard.

But Lance Cpl. Michael Beek, 22, of Houston said he had been welcomed by some residents, and others said they were greeted with roses.

"A lot of the people here like us," he said. "You can tell by their responses as you roll through the town. They say `Saddam bad. No. No.' It's been a pretty positive response."

Outside town, hundreds of surface-to-air missiles, missile launchers and armored personnel carriers stood abandoned like malevolent weeds in the lush fields and shallow trenches.

Also visible: evidence of combat—scorched earth, flocks of dead sheep, a row of six wooden coffins.

Brooks and others drew a distinction between the end of major combat and the end of the war, which remained over the horizon.

"I think we will move into a phase where it is smaller, but sharp fights," McChrystal said.

U.S. soldiers and Marines still planned to move into northern and western Iraq, entering cities such as Ramadi, about 70 miles west of Baghdad, where allied forces have not yet ventured.

"It would be premature to say it (the war) is over as long as there's continued resistance, as long as our soldiers and Marines continue to cover ground where they haven't been," said Navy Capt. Frank Thorp, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command.

Much of the lingering resistance has come from foreign fighters, many of them from Syria, officials said.

Iraqis have been helping coalition forces locate the foreigners, who typically fight in groups of 10 or 20, sometimes wearing explosive vests designed for suicide bombings. One Syrian killed a Marine at a checkpoint last weekend.

"We don't have a good number of how many there are," Brooks said, "but we know they don't have a place in the future of Iraq."

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(Landay and Olkon reported from Tikrit, Merzer from Washington. Also contributing to this report were Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Patrick Peterson with the Marines in Baghdad; Tony Pugh at the Pentagon; Peter Smolowitz at allied headquarters in Qatar; and Fawn Vrazo in London.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

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GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064):

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