WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials said U.S. special operations forces and other units are closing in on Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit amid speculation that the Iraqi dictator or other senior officials might have fled to the city -- perhaps the last still loyal to his collapsed regime.
The speculation intensified Friday after U.S. officials said special operations forces had found and destroyed five small airplanes north of Tikrit that were hidden under camouflage.
"We believe these airplanes might be something that could be potentially used by regime leaders to try to escape," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said from U.S. military headquarters in Qatar. "Or certainly they could be used for the delivery of weapons of mass destruction."
Tikrit, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, is home to one of the largest palace compounds in Iraq and is still protected by remnants of an Iraqi Republican Guard division.
Tikrit "is the only place left where you would expect any resistance to speak of," a U.S. intelligence official said. But even there, the Iraqi units are in tatters.
"There may be irregulars and remnants," the official said, "but in terms of any cohesive fighting force? No way."
Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday that U.S. ground forces and special operations troops "are degrading regime forces in and near Tikrit."
U.S. intelligence officials said it's possible some regime leaders are holed up in Tikrit, a city of about 200,000 that hugs the western bank of the Tigris River.
But they are skeptical that Hussein or his two powerful sons, Uday and Qusai, escaped Baghdad before it was overrun by U.S. forces.
U.S. troops sealed off routes between Baghdad and Tikrit almost a week ago, one official said. For Hussein and other senior figures to escape to Tikrit would be "not impossible, but hard."
The official said it remains unclear whether Hussein survived previous airstrikes.
For its size, Tikrit has attracted a disproportionate share of the U.S. air campaign. Military analysts said there have been strikes on 50 to 100 regime targets in Tikrit, compared with about 300 in Baghdad, a city of 5 million.
The most significant target is a sprawling palace complex that covers about 1 1/2 square miles in an elbow of the Tigris.
Satellite photos of the site show extensive construction activity over the past decade, with dozens of buildings sprouting up around a Versailles-like palace that backs up to a small lake.
The gate to the palace itself, seen from a main road, has two mounted statues of Hussein dressed as Saladin, as the state through its art tried to impress on people that Hussein was to be the modern incarnation of his Tikriti antecedent. Saladin was the 12th-century warrior who defeated the Crusaders.
U.S. officials described the site as perhaps the largest and most elaborate of Hussein's residences, and said it is believed to sit atop a network of tunnels and bunkers.
It is not clear how many of those structures remain intact, but officials at U.S. Central Command in Qatar have shown footage in recent days of strikes on other targets in Tikrit, including riverfront villas thought to be owned by other senior officials.
From its well-paved roads with flower-planted medians to the shining new university and hospital, Tikrit has been a favored city under Hussein's reign. It was a simple market town when Hussein was born there 65 years ago.
"Tikrit is the birthplace of our president, and we will prove that we deserve to live here," said one Baath Party activist, Abdurrakhman Naseri, 55, speaking to a Times reporter a few weeks before the war.
Intelligence officials said Tikrit has never served as a command center for Hussein's government. But loyalists from Tikrit held dozens of dominant positions in his regime and made up a large portion of the elite Special Republican Guard units and the intelligence agencies that formed the core of his security apparatus.
Of the 55 regime figures identified on "most wanted" playing cards released Friday by Central Command, 19 carry the al-Tikriti designation at the end of their names, including Hussein himself.
Nevertheless, intelligence officials and military analysts say Tikrit would be a dead-end escape route for Hussein and other figures. The city is isolated and easy for U.S. forces to choke off.
"I can't imagine anybody would believe they could mount any kind of stand in Tikrit," said military analyst William M. Arkin. "Once the United States surrounds Tikrit, we're talking about basically shutting off the lights, and there's no exit out."
Times staff writer John Daniszewski in Baghdad contributed to this report.