By Nicole Winfield at US Central Command, Qatar
US and British airstrikes have pounded Iraqi forces in the northern city of Tikrit – the next focus of the war now that US troops have largely secured Baghdad.
Special operations forces were also “softening the battlefield” before US ground troops moved into the hometown of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and the presumed hideout for his supporters, US officials said.
With the world’s attention focussed on jubilant residents of the Iraqi capital, US military officials warned that bigger battles might still lie ahead as coalition forces head deeper into northern Iraq.
“This battle definitely isn’t over,” said Captain Frank Thorp, a spokesman at US Central Command. “We know there are very strong possibilities of tougher fights to follow.
“And there’s still a lot of territory to cover.”
There were signs, however, that beyond Baghdad and in much of southern Iraq, combat operations were coming to an end and humanitarian and peacemaking ones were beginning.
British forces shifted to “security and stability efforts” in Basra, the southern city which has been under British control for days, but is beset by looting.
“We’ve come as war fighters, and now we’re very much into the peacemaking business,” said Group Capt. Al Lockwood, a spokesman for British forces in the Persian Gulf.
North of Basra, coalition forces expanded their reach to Amarah, wiping out remaining regime fighters and shifting to humanitarian work for needy Iraqis, said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks.
The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force met “minimal” resistance from the Iraqi 10th and 14th army divisions in Amarah, who largely abandoned their weapons after coalition airstrikes and the fall of Basra, he said.
“Coalition forces at this point now occupy the 10th Armored Division headquarters and will transition into humanitarian assistance and civil military operations in the al-Amarah area.”
In the north of Iraq, special operations forces and Kurdish fighters seized a small town north of Mosul and captured over 200 Iraqis, Brooks said.
Special operations forces backed by airstrikes also attacked Iraqi positions just south of the northern city of Irbil, destroying tanks, cargo trucks and enemy forces.
But it was in Tikrit that US forces were concentrating their air power, particularly since reinforcements had moved in and around the city to bolster units in what could be the last Iraqi stand.
Lt. Mark Kitchens, a Central Command spokesman, said airstrikes and special operations forces were “actively engaging” Iraqi forces – believed to be a combination of the Republican Guard, Baath party members, paramilitary fighters and regular army units.
Brooks suggested Iraqi reinforcements were coming from the north, pressed by US and Kurdish fighters, as well as from south of Tikrit.
Asked if the 4th Infantry Division, which is preparing to deploy from Kuwait, might be sent to Tikrit, Thorp said: “I don’t think it would be unreasonable, but I don’t think we’re going to say yet where actually they’re going to be used.”
In night raids this week, Navy warplanes bombed a Republican Guard barracks and garrison in Tikrit, said Rear Adm. Barry Costello, commander of the USS Constellation.
“We certainly are focussed 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,” Brooks said.
“We anticipate that any fighting that would occur there, if we happen to go to Tikrit, would be similar to what we’ve seen in other parts of the country.”
American troops have secured roads into the city from Baghdad to stop Iraqi leaders from fleeing, but US officials refused to say if any regime leaders had been nabbed trying to reach Tikrit.
Thorp said the Iraqi forces in Saddam’s hometown weren’t “viable”, but could still pose a threat.
“We expect there will be resistance, there will be fighting continued in Baghdad and other places on the way to Tikrit. But we won’t see any truly organised fighting,” he said.