TIKRIT, Iraq — What was supposed to be Saddam Hussein's last stand turned out to be more of a whimper than a bang.
Residents here say Iraqi soldiers, along with most of the Fedayeen Saddam militia and a group of Syrian fighters with them, began deserting two weeks ago, even before the fall of Baghdad. Other residents say the last of Hussein's troops left three days ago. As a result, Tikrit was practically defenseless when the Americans finally entered the town.
On Monday, under blue skies and with Cobra helicopter gunships circling overhead, elements of the U.S. Marines pulled into the Omar Farouk Palace, a mammoth complex with luxury homes and villas for Hussein's retainers and a man-made lake, and planted a small U.S. flag atop the imposing gate.
In the town, some residents were sullen and refused to talk to an American reporter. But others spoke up, saying Tikritis had an undeserved reputation for loyalty to Hussein and his regime.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 17, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 76 words Type of Material: Correction
Marines in Iraq -- An article in Tuesday's Section A on U.S. troops taking control of Tikrit stated that Los Alamitos-based Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, was the only reservist infantry unit fighting alongside active-duty Marines in the war. In fact, the entire 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines, is fighting alongside regular Marine infantry units as part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. A caption accompanying the article also was incorrect for the same reason.
"Don't think we love Saddam Hussein because we live in Tikrit," said Ahmad Jassem, standing outside a gate where people were leaving the palace with piles of looted belongings. "We are very poor, and we hate him."
The fall of Tikrit was a symbolic moment, much like the toppling last week of the Hussein monument in Baghdad's Firdos Square. The city that provided Hussein his top cronies and Special Republican Guard and which he, in turn, lavished with special favors in the form of modern hospitals, mosques, schools and a university, was now home to the U.S. Marines.
The road north from Baghdad to Tikrit was a catalog of defeat for the Hussein regime. The 100-mile route was littered with burned and twisted tanks and artillery pieces belonging to the former Iraqi army. A pair of black combat boots sat on the shoulder of the roadway, abandoned when Iraq's soldiers deserted in droves.
At Taji, 25 miles north of Baghdad, dozens of people, including children and teenagers, surged into the sprawling military base and emerged with armfuls of rifles, bayonets and ammunition that had been left behind by Iraqi soldiers. Some of the youngsters struggled to ride their bicycles as they clasped their booty. One young man, his arms filled with so many bayonets that he resembled the title character from the movie "Edward Scissorhands," clowned for news cameras with an officer's cap tilted rakishly on his head.
At a U.S. Marine checkpoint two miles outside Tikrit, a lieutenant warned that military convoys had come under gunfire earlier in the day. But the drive into the city, which wound past green pastures and across a small stream, was quiet.
In the distance, just outside the palace gate, stood the bomb-damaged Hotel Tikrit, its roof collapsed.
The palace itself was surrounded by a sandstone wall and a huge gate. At either side atop the massive arch stood heroic statues of Hussein in uniform and beret mounted on horseback, waving a sword like the 12th century Muslim fighter Saladin, with missiles at the horse's feet. It is a grandiose monument to a man whose humble beginnings were in the nearby impoverished village of Oja, where Hussein spent his fatherless youth.
Inside the gates, rather than Iraqi resisters, was a column of U.S. Marines, among them Los Alamitos, Calif.-based Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines, the only reservist infantry fighting alongside active-duty Marines in this war. "Reservists took it!" one Marine shouted.
They were all savoring the fall of the last major Iraqi population center in the war. Pfc. Jeff Atkinson of Burbank, perched atop an amphibious assault vehicle and manning his gun, asked a correspondent to say "Hi" to his mom. He summed up their victory as simply: "Intimidation and power."
Sgt. Ken Wallingford of Seal Beach, Calif., said he and his wife expect a baby in five weeks. "Now, hopefully we will get home by then."
The domed roof of the main palace had been crushed by a U.S. airstrike, and in the outlying houses, looters were already hard at work. Two Iraqis carrying off a TV and other assorted booty denied that the people of Tikrit were fans of Hussein.
"My age is 30 and I cannot afford to marry," said one, Mohammed Aji Ajeri. The regime had robbed him of even this basic right. Hussein, he said, "is the chief thief."
The palace revealed the usual assortment of Hussein family luxuries: marble floors, satin- and silk-covered furniture, expensive crystal and china, inlaid wood panels and elegant chandeliers in the main hall. The looters barely stopped to look before scooping up armloads of china, cushions and carpets, lugging them out the door to be piled in waiting taxis and pickup trucks. Eventually, the looters were chased off by some of the Marines.
"All these things belong to the Iraqi people," one Marine said.