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Cities north of Baghdad become focus of war effort

WASHINGTON—It's not over, over there.

Despite the jubilation in Baghdad's central square and in Washington, more than 10 Iraqi army divisions and a brigade of the Republican Guard, or what's left of them, are still holding the oil-rich northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk.

An unknown number of Republican Guard troops still hold Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, north of Baghdad.

Some 40,000 Baathist thugs, Saddam Fedayeen and other irregulars have faded into the neighborhoods of the capital and other cities, now fighting, now running.

The war won't be over until all of them have been defeated, disarmed or killed.

Military analysts suggest that unless the holdouts suddenly learn to read the writing on the walls of Baghdad and Basra, the job could take months.

In Kuwait, the lead elements of the Army's 4th Mechanized Infantry Division are starting to move into Iraq and head north to Baghdad and beyond. Paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, along with U.S. Special Forces and 70,000 tough Kurdish rebels, are pressing against the Iraqi defenses around Kirkuk and Mosul, and the Iraqis there have been taking a night-and-day pounding from the air.

But if the Iraqis in the north don't run, surrender or evaporate, as their comrades around Baghdad did, the 4th Infantry's tanks may be needed to finish off the resistance, take the cities and secure the rich northern oil fields.

A complicating factor sits quietly along Iraq's northern border. Forty thousand Turkish soldiers are watching closely as Iraqi Kurds move, with U.S. help, toward Mosul, Kirkuk and the oil fields. If the Kurds even look as if they're taking control of that region, the Turks may feel obliged to move south to discourage any thoughts of an independent Kurdistan.

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The U.S.-led coalition's second remaining target is Tikrit, 110 miles north of Baghdad; it's the city that gave Saddam Hussein to Iraq and provided many of the dictator's most trusted aides and generals. It's also a likely place for Saddam to have stashed chemical and biological weapons. U.S. forces have seized and blocked the roads leading north out of Baghdad to prevent government officials from trying to go home again.

Central Command officials said their aircraft are targeting the Republic Guard's Adnan Division in and around Tikrit, and U.S. Special Operations troops are active in the area.

"We certainly are focused on Tikrit to prevent the regime from being able to use it as a place to command and control, to restore command and control, or to hide," said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks in Qatar.

Brooks said Iraqi reinforcements have moved up from the south and down from the north to beef up Tikrit's defenses.

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Since his Baath Party took power in 1968, Saddam has poured government money into his hometown, which has grown from a wide spot in the road to a city of more than 260,000 people.

That, however, may have made Tikrit harder for the Iraqis to defend. Saddam's largesse built wide boulevards, ideal for tanks, and three airfields, open invitations to America's 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The surrounding desert can also serve as a tank highway, and Saddam built his biggest palace outside the city, which means it can be attacked without endangering the locals.

Nevertheless, whether Saddam is still alive and taking refuge in his hometown or dead in Baghdad, Tikrit could prove to be the toughest place of all to secure and pacify, not because of geography or layout but because its people have both blood and money ties to Saddam, his Tikriti tribe and his government.

The final military task, securing and policing the towns and cities of Iraq, could be the most time-consuming of all.

Marines on Wednesday reported a buildup of 1,500 to 2,000 resistance fighters in the southeastern city of Kut, which American forces bypassed last week in their rush to Baghdad. "Several hundred" foreign fighters have holed up in Kut, along with some remnants of the Republican Guard's Baghdad Division, the Baath Party and Saddam Fedayeen militias, said Marine Lt. Col. George Smith.

"It's going to be these knots, these knots of fanatics, that are going to bother us," said Smith, adding that Marine commanders have ordered their troops to remain vigilant despite the government's apparent collapse.

In the southern city of Basra, which fell this week to British forces, liberation has not brought peace. Mobs of looters have torn through hospitals, government buildings, shops and the homes of innocent people while British tanks stood by without intervening. The British say they are not in Basra to police the town.

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Similar scenes are being played out in parts of Baghdad, where security and paramilitary forces appear to have melted into the population and U.S. troops have had firefights with irregular holdouts armed with AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

In short, V-I (Victory in Iraq) Day hasn't quite arrived yet.

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(Galloway reported from Washington; Tamayo from Marine Combat Headquarters southeast of Baghdad.)

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

Iraq

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