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Stronghold of Tikrit may be Saddam's last stand

Loyalty in his birthplace will be tested

From Monita Rajpal

Iraqi soldiers parade in Tikrit in early February.
Iraqi soldiers parade in Tikrit in early February.

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(CNN) -- There is little doubt whose town Tikrit was. In better days, the streets were decorated with larger-than-life murals of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Located about 100 miles north of Baghdad, Saddam's hometown of Tikrit prospered under his regime. The city had modern roads and new mosques. Its schools and hospitals were rated some of the best in the country.

But that was before the war. Military analysts now say the town could be the place where Saddam's forces make their last stand.

Once protected by the Republican Guard's Adnan Division, Tikrit is currently defended by elements of the Special Republican Guard, Fedayeen militia and Baath Party loyalists, according to the United States.

Coalition forces have bombed the city for several days, targeting radio centers, V.I.P. retreats and barracks of the Republican Guard units. U.S. special forces have also blocked the roads between Baghdad and Tikrit, hoping to cut off any Iraqi retreats from Baghdad.

The town also has special meaning in Iraq's military history, as it is the birthplace of Muslim leader Saladin as well as Saddam. Saladin drove the crusaders from Jerusalem in the 12th century.

Many Tikrit townspeople have family or tribal ties to the government and the Republican Guard. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered there for Saddam's 65th birthday festivities in April 2002. Because of the bonds to the now-deposed leader, at least one Iraq expert predicts the town will not fall easily.

"He is genuinely popular in Tikrit," says Con Coughlin, author of several books about the Iraqi leader. "He's also spent a lot of money there over the years. He will expect the Tikritis to repay the loyalty he's shown them in the 25 years he was in power."

Pentagon 'ready for a big fight'

Pentagon officials have said its efforts are having an impact. Coalition forces facing Tikrit are "trying to judge their strength, trying to judge to what extent they have an integrated air defense, although we think we've taken most of that down," Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said Thursday. "I think we are prepared to be very, very wary of what they have and be ready for a big fight."

Coalition airstrikes have already damaged some sites in Tikrit.
Coalition airstrikes have already damaged some sites in Tikrit.

Although coalition forces now pushing toward Tikrit from the north and south, the nature of their final approach is unknown. Military analysts credit a multipronged advance to Baghdad in the coalition's rout of Iraqi troops in the south.

"I'm not going to predispose as to when we might go in that direction and what we could do," U.S. Central Command spokesman Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said Wednesday. "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."

After Iraqi troops were pushed out of northern Kirkuk on Thursday, CNN correspondent Kevin Sites witnessed them leaving southward on the road toward Tikrit. They also appeared to be loading boats on a river leading in the same direction. (Full story)

Coalition forces found and destroyed five airplanes north of Tikrit "covered in camouflage" Friday, possibly to be used by the regime to escape from Iraq or to deliver weapons of mass destruction, according to Brooks.

Recruits for Iraq's Special Security intelligence agency usually hail from Tikrit or its environs because of the sensitive nature of their work, according to Jane's Sentinel analysis.

Although military experts said most of the Iraqi army has showed signs of great disorganization, soldiers were seen formally parading in Tikrit as recently as February.

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