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Battle to restore law and order

A fire burns after fighting near Baghdad's Al Wazir Mosque

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. military forces have begun trying to restore order in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, after three days of looting and lawlessness triggered by the sudden collapse of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

After nightfall, fires raged at several buildings in Baghdad, including a bank and the Ministry of Planning. U.S. Marine officials were trying to persuade civilian police and firefighters to return to their posts, but they showed little inclination to do so, reported CNN Correspondent Christiane Amanpour.

Earlier Friday, U.S. Marines thwarted an attempted suicide bombing at a Marine position in Baghdad and discovered two suicide bomb "factories," where explosives were being packed into leather jackets and children's dolls, U.S. military officials told CNN Correspondent Walter Rodgers.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said troops now on the ground in Iraq have "an obligation to assist in providing security, and the coalition forces are doing that. They're patrolling in various cities. Where they see looting, they're stopping it."

However, he also insisted that reports of the lawlessness were being overblown and that the looting was largely the result of "pent-up feelings" of oppression that should subside in the coming days.

"Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things," Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news briefing. "They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things, and that's what's going to happen here." (Lawless Baghdad)

U.S. military officials said they have begun sending more units trained in security into Iraq. Sources also told CNN that the Pentagon has approved a plan to ask other nations to send security and police forces -- but not military combat units -- into the country.

Rumsfeld said an effort is also under way to "find Iraqis who can assist in providing police support in those cities and various types of stabilizing and security assistance."

The World Health Organization on Friday urged the military forces and civilian authorities to act quickly to restore law and order, and to ensure the safety of Iraqi hospitals and hospital staff.

In its daily briefing, the WHO called the current situation being reported from Baghdad, Basra, Zubair, Kirkuk, Mosul and other Iraqi towns "extremely alarming."

The health organization said those in authority must do whatever is necessary to restore water and electricity to the cities and towns, to prevent further deterioration of the infrastructure, and minimize the risk of outbreaks of disease.

Cassandra Nelson, a spokesperson for the humanitarian group Mercy Corps also said Friday there is some concern that the food supply in Basra may run short. She also said rioting and looting are preventing the food from reaching the people who need it most.

"As it stands now, it's near impossible to an organization to send out food to those truly in need... widowed women and children," Nelson said.

"We're focusing on gaining security and law and order in the coming days," she said, stressing that law and order is an utmost concern for humanitarian organizations.

"It is urgent that the situation is brought under control so we can get in and do our work," Nelson said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross reports that al Kindi hospital in Baghdad has been completely emptied by looters and even the beds have been stolen. (Aid efforts hampered)

On Saturday, the Australian government announced Operation Baghdad Assist to provide medical supplies to the Iraqi capital.

Australian Defence Minister Robert Hill said an Australian or United States transport aircraft will be loaded with medical supplies from the Australian naval vessel Kanimbla -- which is operating in the Persian Gulf -- and will transport them to Baghdad.

This will be followed by two further loads of supplies from Australia to be delivered by Hercules transport planes.

Meanwhile, coalition troops in Iraq face fresh attacks from Iraqis opposed to their presence and the looming threat of a "mother of all battles" in Tikrit, the hometown of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

On Tikrit's outskirts Friday, looters and vandals filled the void left when irregular forces and Baath Party fighters withdrew into the city to join the Republican Guard's Adnan Division and other of Saddam's paramilitary forces.

The retreating Saddam loyalists destroyed the Tigris River bridge they crossed behind them. (Full story)

Coalition warplanes pounded the city perimeter, as they had throughout the war, and coalition officials said Tikrit could fall as had Baghdad, with the resistance falling away in the face of a steady coalition advance on the city.

On the other hand, Saddam stacked his closest advisers and security forces with fellow Tikritis -- and his Tikriti tribesmen could well be expected to defend their leader to the death.

The U.S. said coalition forces had destroyed five camouflaged aircraft north of the city, speculating they may have been waiting to help regime officials escape Iraq or deliver weapons of mass destruction.

Further to the north, U.S. forces entered Kirkuk Friday, a day after Kurdish forces rattled Turkey -- which fears an independent Kurdish state just across the border from its own Kurdish population -- by swarming into the oil-rich city unhindered by Iraqi forces.

The commander of the Iraqi army's 5th Corps surrendered his troops at Mosul, northern Iraq's other key city, early Friday, and many of the soldiers left their posts -- often leaving their uniforms and weapons for Kurdish forces -- to return home. (Full story)

Also, at a U.S. naval medical center, President George W. Bush said Friday he was unsure whether Saddam Hussein was dead or alive, but "I do know he's no longer in power."

At CentCom headquarters in Doha, Qatar, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, said military officials were giving coalition forces a deck of cards containing the images of 55 Iraqi officials "who may be pursued, killed or captured."

Saddam Hussein is the ace of spades in the deck while Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz is the eight of spades. (Full story)

In other developments:

• U.S. Marines Friday said a would-be suicide bomber was stopped at a checkpoint in Baghdad and taken into custody.

• One U.S. soldier was killed and two are wounded from a land mine explosion in Baghdad, Pentagon officials Friday told CNN.

• Former Russian Foreign Mister Yevgeny Primakov confirmed long-standing rumors that he, on the eve of the war in Iraq, did convey a message from Russian President Vladimir Putin urging Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to step down.

• Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi told CNN Friday he was "not a candidate" for any position in a post-war Iraqi government. Chalabi has been rumored to be Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's choice to head an interim Iraqi authority.

• Iraqi intelligence agents planned an attack on CNN journalists working in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq last March, three months after Iraq's information minister warned of the "severest possible consequences" if CNN sent reporters into the region, according to CNN's Chief News Executive Eason Jordan. (Full story)

• According to the latest figures provided by U.S. and British authorities, a total of 138 coalition service members have died in the conflict. (Coalition casualties)

• The Iraqi government has released no information on military losses, though U.S. military officials have reported thousands of Iraqi military deaths. Official Iraqi sources quoted by Abu Dhabi TV said 1,252 civilians had died and 5,103 had been wounded. U.S. Central Command said more than 7,300 Iraqis had been taken prisoner of war.

-- CNN Correspondents Jane Arraf, Ben Wedeman, Martin Savidge, Walter Rodgers, Tom Mintier and Steve Nettleton and Time Magazine's Michael Ware contributed to this report.

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

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