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Marines advance into Tikrit

Tanks stand empty at an abandoned Iraqi military base in Tikrit.

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•  Commanders: U.S. | Iraq
•  Weapons: 3D Models

TIKRIT, Iraq (CNN) -- The battle for Tikrit has begun, according to a reporter embedded with U.S. Marines sent to Saddam Hussein's hometown in north-central Iraq.

Matthew Fisher, a National Post of Canada reporter, told CNN on Sunday that a large number of Cobra attack helicopters were engaging Iraqi forces inside the city, and some 250 armored vehicles from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Unit had entered the city as well.

Brig. Gen. John Kelly said the Marines encountered five manned tanks earlier on the outskirts of the town and destroyed them and also engaged in a fierce firefight with an Iraqi infantry unit, killing at least 15, Fisher said.

The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force left Baghdad on Saturday for the 90-mile (144-kilometer) trip to Tikrit, where its mission was to "attack and destroy any type of regime forces in the area," according to U.S. Central Command.

The Marine march to Tikrit turned up seven American troops who had been held by Iraqi soldiers. The recovery took place north of Samarra, a town about 25 miles south of Tikrit, sources told CNN's Bob Franken, who is embedded with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

The U.S. military could not confirm any negotiations with Saddam supporters in Tikrit for a possible surrender of the town, said Central Command spokesman Capt. Stewart Upton.

CNN crew comes under fire

Earlier Sunday, a schoolteacher outside Tikrit told CNN's Brent Sadler that talks were under way as the correspondent assessed whether it was safe for his convoy of seven vehicles to enter Tikrit.

A truck driver had told Sadler that Saddam was finished and there was no fighting in the deposed president's ancestral homeland.

The CNN group entered the city but quickly retreated when a hail of automatic machine gun fire hit its vehicles, apparently from Saddam loyalists.

"It remains incredibly dangerous to be out there as a unilateral journalist," a Pentagon official said, referring to reporters who were not embedded with U.S. military forces.

One person in the convoy received a head wound from flying glass when the back window of a sport utility vehicle was blown out, Sadler said.

"That confirms our worst fears" that Tikrit is not yet safe, Sadler said.

Sadler said it appeared that Tikrit had been "largely untouched" by coalition troops or looting.

The area north of the city looked abandoned, with no military movement and only a few civilians on the road, including armed men wearing civilian clothing, some of whom waved at the TV crew.

Highway signs bearing the former Iraqi leader's image were still intact as were large statues of Saddam. Sadler discovered two empty military bases.

The first sprawling complex, about five miles outside of town, had been hit by airstrikes.

There were destroyed bunkers, abandoned artillery pieces and tanks, and piles of missiles and ammunition at the base.

Tikrit is thought to be the heart of Saddam's remaining loyalist support and may have been used to store his weapons.

Before Sadler went into Tikrit, his crew traveled around the outskirts for more than two hours, with his movements shown live on CNN. Sadler traveled to the area from Mosul to the north.

"There was not one checkpoint from the southern part of Mosul all the way down to Tikrit for about three hours of driving," Sadler said.

His group also entered a Republican Guard complex -- marked by the unit's traditional red triangle symbol -- that looked like a tank division headquarters.

At one point, Sadler climbed atop an armored personnel carrier and looked inside, but it was empty.

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

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