Eyewitness: Tikrit Falls

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Tikrit went like so many of the Iraqi centers of power — it caved in on itself. Even while the international media reported a buildup of hardcore units — the Republican Guard and similar elite formations — the defenders of Tikrit were planning to leave. "They left three days ago," said Ahmed, who lived near military bases on the edge of the city. "They abandoned everything they had and went home." Other Tikritis coming out of the city say that all the elite structures of the Saddam regime have disintegrated. If Saddam or his close associates were in the city they gave no sign. Most assume that any surviving leaders have fled west, across the desert to Syria.

The one holdout is group is a band of tribal gunmen who have barred the bridge across the Tigris that leads into the city center. They may be protecting the city against looters or they may be trying to prevent competing groups of marauders intruding on their turf. The first signs of looting are already clear, however. A new car with five self-styled Kurdish guerillas drove by, telling a stirring tale of gunfights and escape and pointing to a bullethole and a smashed window in the side of the car. The car plates, however, were covered over with mud — usually a sign that a car has been looted or stolen. Local people say they have not seen U.S. troops in the city, despite news reports. The troops will have to move in fast and have a law inforcement land aid if they are to prevent the scenes of "untidiness" that have been witnessed in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. U.S. forces this time know what to expect. They will have fewer excuses for inaction this time.