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Marines 'soon to control Tikrit'

cobra helicopter
A U.S. Cobra attack helicopter sweeps over Tikrit

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TIKRIT, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. Marines are likely to soon win control of Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, a Canadian journalist says, as sporadic firefights continue in the capital Baghdad.

A day after fighting Iraqis on Tikrit's outskirts, U.S. troops began to move into the city with "substantial force" about 6 a.m. Monday (0200 GMT), said Matthew Fisher, a correspondent for Canada's National Post who is traveling with the Marines.

Coalition forces assaulted Tikrit from the south, west and north and secured the presidential palace there, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks of U.S. Central Command said Monday.

Troops have been searching Tikrit for remaining regime supporters, Brooks added.

"I think by the end of today the Marines will declare that this town in under their control," he said.

Fisher said that at that point, the U.S.-led coalition would be able to declare the war over. Fisher told CNN that he felt U.S. forces were "only minutes, maybe hours from saying this war is truly over."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that Saddam's army had collapsed, and many of those still fighting against U.S. and British forces were from outside Iraq.

"In essence, all over Iraq, Saddam's forces have collapsed. Much of the remaining fighting, particularly in Baghdad, is being carried out by foreign irregular forces," Blair said in a statement to parliament Monday. (Full story)

The Marines had "massive air power" at hand in the battle for Tikrit, including F-18s and Cobra attack helicopters, Fisher reported. (Tikrit battle)

Al-Jazeera television crews showed low-flying U.S. Cobra attack helicopters sweeping over the city around 8:30 a.m. (0430 GMT).

Any plans for negotiations with local clan leaders to hand over the city were not immediately known, Fisher said.

Tribal chieftains told Al-Jazeera that Saddam's clan and the army had left the city days earlier, and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday that no organized resistance was visible in Tikrit.

In central Baghdad, Marines engaged in a firefight for more than two hours early Monday with gunmen holed up in a building near the Palestine Hotel, home for many international journalists covering the war, witnesses and Marines said. (Hotel firefight)

Marines said they took three men into custody whom they suspect of carrying out the shooting. Marines said the men were guards at a nearby club and had been hiding in a building next to a gas station on Firdos Square, across from the hotel.

Last week, Marines helped a crowd of Iraqis topple a large statue of Saddam in the square.

That the gunbattle was so close to a hotel full of reporters meant it received wide coverage, but CNN's Nic Robertson said it was just one example of the violence erupting in Baghdad in recent days as the U.S. military tries to gain full control of the city. (Tense capital)

Meanwhile, seven American POWs rescued by U.S. Marines said they were in constant fear they might be killed, Peter Baker of The Washington Post reported Monday. The seven are due to return from Kuwait to the United States on Monday or Tuesday. (POWs freed)

Saddam's half-brother: Five of spades on most-wanted card deck.
Saddam's half-brother: Five of spades on most-wanted card deck.

And 18 Kuwaitis apparently held prisoner in Iraq since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait have been found alive in Baghdad, Abu Dhabi TV reported Monday.

Other developments:

• One of Saddam's half-brothers, Watban Ibrahim Hasan al-Tikriti, was captured while trying to escape across the border to Syria, a U.S. official told CNN. In the deck of playing cards distributed to U.S. troops to help them recognize fugitive leaders, al-Tikriti was the five of spades. The fate of Saddam -- the ace of spades in that deck -- is unknown.

• In Kut, southeast of Baghdad, Marines were reassessing the security situation Monday after taking administrative control of the city the day before, following days of negotiations with religious and civic leaders. Units were placed on high alert in case violence erupts.

• In Basra, British Central Command spokesman Group Capt. Al Lockwood said Monday that British troops were restoring law and order to the streets, mounting joint patrols in conjunction with local police officers.

• A U.S. military official said Monday that "indications are" a Patriot missile shot down an F/A-18C Hornet fighter that went down over Iraq on April 2, killing the pilot. Lt. Mark Kitchens told CNN's Tom Mintier the incident is being investigated.

• UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called on Syria to cooperate over U.S. allegations it is harboring Iraqi fugitives or developing illegal chemical weapons. Straw said he was unsure whether Damascus had an illegal weapons program and that dialogue was needed with the Syrian government. Syria has denied the allegations, saying they were "misinformation" to divert attention from civil disorder in Iraq. (Trading blame)

• According to the latest figures provided by U.S. and British authorities, 148 coalition service members have died in the conflict. (Coalition casualties)

• The Iraqi government released no information on military losses, though U.S. officials have reported thousands of Iraqi military deaths. Before the collapse of Saddam's regime, Abu Dhabi TV, quoting official Iraqi sources, put the figure at 1,252. U.S. Central Command said more than 7,300 Iraqis were taken prisoner of war.

EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN's policy is to not report information that puts operational security at risk.


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