U.S. bears down on Saddam#039;s hometown

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 10, 2003

CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar (AP) - In the northern desert hometown of Saddam Hussein, die-hard Iraqi loyalists are hunkering down under withering U.S. airstrikes and digging in for a potential last stand.

The dusty town of Tikrit has been branded a regime stronghold by the U.S. military. Its sprawling presidential complexes and the tunnels beneath them could serve as Saddam's final hideout. And the city's blood-bonded tribesmen could carry on fighting even if their leader is dead.

U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks suggested Wednesday that Iraqi reinforcements - pressured from the north by U.S. and Kurdish fighters and from the south by the fall of Baghdad - were converging on Tikrit.

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''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,'' he said.

Brooks said it was not clear how strong the Iraqi forces there were.

But U.S. officials said special forces troops were there ''softening the battlefield'' before any U.S. ground troops move in. Also, coalition aircraft were hitting hard at the Republican Guard's Adnan division there. The Navy said its warplanes bombed a barracks and garrison.

American troops have also blocked the roads into Tikrit from Baghdad to stop Iraqi leaders from fleeing there and troops from regrouping.

Resistance could be fierce in Tikrit if ground coalition ground troops ever move in.

Saddam built loyalty by showering largess that turned the Tigris River backwater into a sprawling city of 260,000 after his Baath Party assumed power in 1968. Saddam's birthplace hosts an air base and air force academy in addition to the Republican Guard garrison.

Tikrit's martial pride predates Saddam; the city was the birthplace of the Kurdish warrior Saladin, who defeated the Crusaders during the Middle Ages.

Today, Tikrit is a power center for Sunni Arab tribes, and they may hold out for as long as possible out of fear of losing power to the nation's Shiite majority.