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U.S. Pushes Into Center of Tikrit

Central Command spokesman Gen. Vincent Brooks told reporters in Doha, Qatar that coalition troops had faced “less resistance than we anticipated” as they moved through the city and entered its massive presidential palace compound. The palace complex consists of some 150 buildings and sprawls some 2.5 miles long and 1,500 yards wide.

Brooks said that while the coalition has engaged in “focused operational fire for the last several weeks” in Tikrit, “the primary force just arrived in the last 24 hours.”

He said U.S. forces were attempting to spark a dialogue with residents of Tikrit to secure the city and find possible regime leaders.

Brig. Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of the operation in Tikrit, told the Associated Press that the city’s residents were assisting in the search for forces loyal to Saddam.

“It was a ghost town when we first arrived,” he said. “Then they [residents] start sticking their noses out and approaching us and start pointing out where Ba’athists are, and the Fedayeen and the caches of weapons.”

Earlier, Capt. Frank Thorp told reporters at Central Command that U.S. troops had been successful in clamping down on Iraqi resistance within the city.

“We have had engagements and we have defeated the enemy in every one of those engagements,” Thorp said.

Marine First Lt. Greg Starace told the Associated Press that his unit entered the city just after dawn on Sunday.

“As soon as we got here we had some engagements against some small pockets of resistance,” he said.

Gen. Kelly told The New York Times’ Dexter Filkins that his men had destroyed a tank column to the south of Tikrit on Sunday, and killed a platoon of some 15 to 20 attacking Iraqi fighters.

U.S. military officials suspected some 2,500 fighters loyal to Saddam Hussein, perhaps including some members of his government, were hiding out in the city, Matthew Fisher of Canada’s National Post told CNN.

Al Jazeera correspondent Yousssef al-Sharif told Reuters that U.S. Marines had imposed a curfew and were conducting house-to-house searches within the city.

Thorp said that while fighting on the ground was fierce in some areas, military officials expected to secure the city. He said U.S. forces had already established checkpoints to the south and west to prevent any regime leaders from escaping.

“The outcome is not in doubt,” he told reporters. “That’s the difference between when we were in Nasiriyah and Najaf or something like that.”

Aside from roving clusters of Iraqi fighters, reports from Tikrit describe a mostly quiet city.

Washington Post correspondent Daniel Williams said the northern side of Tikrit seemed all but abandoned.

“Neighborhoods of small, block-like houses were desolate,” he wrote. “Little automobile traffic entered and no pedestrians were visible on the pavement on either side of a divided highway that runs from Mosul, about 150 miles to the northwest.”

The New York Times’ Filkins described the center of the city, near the palace complex, as “calm … with few people on the streets.”

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