JIM LEHRER: The large-scale fighting in Iraq is over: The U.S. Military offered that assessment today, after 26 days of war. Major General Stanley McChrystal confirmed two of five aircraft carriers, the "Kitty Hawk" and the "Constellation," would be leaving the Persian Gulf region, and at a Pentagon briefing he said ground action was winding down with the move into Saddam Hussein's hometown.
MAJ. GEN. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL: I would anticipate that the major combat engagements are over because the major Iraqi units on the ground cease to show coherence. Tikrit was the last area where we anticipated seeing major cam bat formations if in fact they were there. There were some sharp fights there, but not a coherent defense. So I think we will move into a phase where it is smaller albeit sharp fights.
JIM LEHRER: That assault on Tikrit came from three directions today. U.S. Marines overwhelmed any resistance they found. We get that story from Julian Manyon of Independent Television News.
JULIAN MANYON: U.S. helicopter gun ships blast Iraqi positions on the outskirts of Tikrit. ( Heavy weapons fire ) But this was not the battle royal many had predicted, and tonight Saddam Hussein's hometown is firmly in American hands. We found U.S. Marines already in occupation of Tikrit's main square, still dominated by an equestrian statue of the fallen dictator. We joined the marines as they pushed forward to secure the main populated area of the city. Ahead of us, helicopter gun ships swooped over the rooftops. We are with a forward group of U.S. Marines which is advancing extremely cautiously towards what we believe is the central mosque of the city of Tikrit. The situation at the moment is calm; there's no shooting; but it is extremely tense, and it's clear that these American soldiers believe that they could come under fire at any moment. Many Tikritis had fled; those who remained watched the American seizure of their city calmly, but with little warmth.
MAN ON STREET ( Translated ): We support anyone who comes here, Saddam or anyone else. All we want is peace.
JULIAN MANYON: The Americans occupied government complexes and carefully secured the police headquarters, already half destroyed by bombing. Then, suddenly, the gun ships went into action. In fact, the Iraqi fighters had withdrawn to a military base just outside the city, and it was immediately bombed by the Americans. The fight for Tikrit was effectively over. What remains are grandiose monuments to Saddam's rule. This was one of his favorite palaces, but today American armor filled his drive. Looters had already emptied the once-magnificent buildings. The Americans found only empty chambers and no answer to the question of where the fallen tyrant may now be.
JIM LEHRER: Elsewhere in Iraq today, there were new efforts to reestablish order in major cities and towns. Kwame Holman has more on that story and the other news from Iraq.
KWAME HOLMAN: Large parts of Baghdad had been engulfed in chaos since the city fell last Wednesday, but today civilians joined American forces in trying to restore a semblance of law to the streets. In Baghdad, more than 2,000 Iraqi volunteer policemen reported for work today in a city that was substantially calmer than in days past. They patrolled alongside U.S. soldiers. Looting still was being reported in some sections of the city, but elsewhere residents began returning looted items, and shopkeepers and building owners posted signs asking others to bring back stolen goods. U.S. commanders welcomed the efforts of everyday Iraqis to help restore the peace.
SOLDIER: Obviously we want it to be joint, rather than all of us, because there is a great fear with the Iraqi people that we are here as an occupying force, and that's not the case at all, and we think that by including the Iraqi policemen that have shown a track history of being trustworthy and not mistreating the people, that we'll be able to have the new government come in and implement quicker. They'll already have a baseline of trust with the people, and that's something that we're aiming for right now.
KWAME HOLMAN: We talked a short time ago with Jon Lee Anderson of the New Yorker Magazine in Baghdad and asked about the situation there today.
JON LEE ANDERSON: Today was the first day which didn't feel chaotic and out of control. There is still looting going on, and in fact as I return from the west part of Baghdad, which is the area where most of Saddam's palaces are, which were still being raked over, there were still some attacks from lootings and one building that went up in smoke there today, on this side. I notice the building that was not far from these hotels, the Palestine and Sheraton where most of the press is. But the traffic was flowing unusually normally, the street parallel to us, which is a main downtown artery. There did seem to be a kind of routine setting in with the marines, it's been a couple of days now that they have begun getting their action in order so to speak and summoning people who can get them get the city back to shape, electricians, engineers, policemen, that kind of thing. So it is a positive sign. But there is a kind of sad and tragic air hanging over the city over the last four days of looting, which have left virtually every public institution in this city completely stripped if not in a smoking ruin, including the national museum -- as well as the national library, burned every single volume into black charred paper. And I gathered today the museum housing ancient illuminated Islamic scripts which again was considered one of the treasure houses for that kind of thing in the Middle East. So to see the cultural patrimony going up, when people could have stopped it, is distressing to say the least. And I have to say they feel that a lot of political capital, as the coalition forces been able to assert order when they came in, having displaced Saddam Hussein, has been lost by their apparent inability or unwillingness to stop the looting. And that's set a lot of people against them, that's really what I'm picking up from the city.
KWAME HOLMAN: U.S. troops continued to search for evidence of chemical and biological weapons in Baghdad. These soldiers discovered hidden tunnels underneath a building... ...and worked their way through them. In the end, they found only medicines and ammunition in what is believed to be among the tunnels Saddam Hussein might have used to escape detection. In another part of Baghdad, soldiers dug into a bunker where they found a cache of shoulder- fired missiles. They also searched several buildings.
SOLDIER: What we found in the other building is what appeared to be, and was definitely, nuclear, biological, and chemical protective gear. They were definitely preparing themselves to be protected from any type of NBC attack. We can't speculate as to what, but they are preparing and training for chem. And biohazards.
KWAME HOLMAN: One of the search sites was a palace believed to belong to Saddam's oldest son, Odai.
MAJOR KENT RIDEOUT, U.S. Marine Corps: This whole area we determine to be is Odai and Qusay Hussein's little penthouse mansions that they own, and they bounce around in different places and store stuff. There's UNICEF boxes in there that have kids' school supplies and things like that obviously were meant from countries to this country for the children of Iraq, yet these jerks, you know, took it all in there.
KWAME HOLMAN: In Nasiriyah, south of Baghdad, many U.S. units have shifted almost full-time to a security role. Traders came back to streets, but water and electricity still were not fully restored. In one section of Nasiriyah, U.S. Marines began processing Iraqi volunteers to aid in the policing. They handed out weapons and newly made uniforms to men who signed up to be a part of the "Free Iraqi" force. Also in Nasiriyah, Ahmad Chalabi, head of the U.S.- supported Iraqi National Congress, said the first objective of the volunteers is to establish law and order in every city in the country.
AHMAD CHALABI: The most important thing now is to establish safety and security in the towns and villages in the countryside, and also to forge ahead with the process of de-Ba'athification. The Ba'ath Party organization must be uprooted. It is the cause of a great deal of difficulties now, and we must destroy the Ba'ath Party organization. This by no means means individual violence against Ba'athists.
KWAME HOLMAN: An example of how unstable conditions still are in other parts of Iraq was seen in the northern city of Kirkuk today. Tensions rose as hundreds of ethnic Turks gathered for the funeral of a young girl who was killed and her father injured when their car was fired upon outside a Turkmen administrative center. Turkmen blame Kurds for the killing; the Kurds deny any involvement in the incident.
There were more reports today of possible banned weapons. U.S. Marines said they found 80 missiles in large yellow trucks yesterday in Baghdad. The missiles can carry nuclear and chemical warheads. And an army general told CNN his troops found 11 mobile labs buried near the city of Karbala. He said they could be used to create chemical or biological weapons. Three U.S. troops were killed today in Iraq, all of them in accidents. Two died when a grenade went off; the other was killed in a vehicle wreck. The official U.S. death toll in the war now stands at 118. Four Americans still are missing. The British death toll remains 31. There were press reports today that U.S. troops might have found some Kuwaiti prisoners of war missing since the 1991 Gulf War. The U.S. Central Command said it had no such reports. Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Thanks, Kwame. Seven American POW's in Iraq were hustled from place to place for three weeks, and some feared they'd be killed. They told their stories to the Washington Post and the Miami Herald after being rescued by U.S. Marines on Sunday. Five were from an army maintenance unit; the other two were army helicopter pilots. They said they were kicked and beaten when they were captured, but they also said they received medical treatment, and they did not complain of any torture.