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Hometown likely to be Saddam's last stand

WASHINGTON—The bull's-eye is now painted large on the city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, which could be the site of the last big battle in the Iraq war.

At first glance, the city of 260,000 inhabitants sprawled along the bank of the Tigris River 110 miles northwest of Baghdad doesn't appear to be ideal for hard-line holdouts to make their last stand.

But U.S. intelligence officials said some of Saddam's senior Baath Party officials, remnants of his Republican Guard and other diehards had fled there. U.S. Central Command representatives said Thursday there was evidence that Republican Guard troops were regrouping in Tikrit, which could set the stage for a conclusive battle to end the war. And it's there that U.S. military officials said they were detecting the last signs of any command and control of Iraq's remaining military forces.

With more than 70 percent of coalition air power now targeting northern Iraq, Tikrit is attracting more than its share of attention. Central Command spokesmen said Thursday that Tikrit was bombed heavily Wednesday night.

With rows of military barracks and army warehouse complexes, an armored brigade of the Adnan Republican Guard division and a sprawling 3-acre presidential palace just outside town, Tikrit is what pilots call "a target-rich environment."

Moving north out of Kuwait are the lead armor elements of the recently arrived 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized) from Fort Hood, Texas, the U.S. Army's most heavily armed and most modern fighting force, with M1A2 Abrams SEP tanks and M3 Bradley fighting vehicles, the Army's newest.

If its commanders choose to take Highway 1, the 4th Infantry could roll right past Baghdad and on to Tikrit to finish off any of the Adnan brigade's 50 to 60 tanks that the Air Force hasn't already killed.

It probably would take the 4th Infantry's lead elements several days to make the 400-plus-mile road march to the vicinity of Tikrit, and by then the day and night pounding from the air should have softened things up considerably for the tankers. The 101st Airborne Division, already farther north, could get there faster.

Tikrit and its tribal neighbors in the towns of Samarra, Ad Dawr and Bayji were little more than dusty backwater villages when the Baath Arab Socialist Party, including a young Arab nationalist firebrand named Saddam Hussein, seized power in 1968.

Saddam, who seized absolute power for himself in 1979, recruited his top advisers and security forces from Tikrit and the nearby towns. He poured government money into the town, located his military's armor training center there and built three airfields around it.

When Tikrit is taken down, not many Iraqis will mourn its fall. Analyst Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says, "No population in Iraq can arouse less sympathy. This is the center of the families that have supported the regime, manned its security services and profiteered from it."

Roads line both sides of the Tigris, and a bridge crosses the river directly into the heart of the city. A broad four-lane highway goes by the city on the west, allowing the Americans to bypass Tikrit should they need to push units farther north to secure the northern oil fields, or to prevent local Kurds from taking them and sparking an invasion by Turkey.

Cordesman says the city's layout—long and narrow with little defensive depth—makes Tikrit "one of the worst cities in Iraq to defend."

Saddam also built what's said to be the largest and most luxurious of his 60-plus palaces in the desert outside Tikrit, all by itself with no civilian or military structures nearby.

The isolated palace, with its reputed labyrinth of underground tunnels and shelters, might present an opportunity for the Air Force to demonstrate its new 21,000-pound, satellite-guided MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Burst) bomb, better known as the Mother of All Bombs. Officials said the Air Force had brought one of the MOABs into the theater, where it was available to be dropped from a C-130 cargo plane.

Dropping it on Saddam's palace might generate enough "shock and awe" to convince the remaining Republican Guard soldiers, Baathists and others that further resistance would be futile, even in a town with Tikrit's attitude.

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

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

USIRAQ+TIKRIT.

Iraq

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