TIKRIT, Iraq (AP) – U.S. Marines overran loyalists staging a last stand yesterday at Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, ending the major combat phase of the Iraq war.

Saddam’s presidential palace was seized without a fight, the military said, and large numbers of U.S. troops were in central Tikrit by yesterday afternoon.

“There was less resistance than we anticipated,” said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, U.S. Central Command spokesman, noting that Tikrit defenders had been subjected to airstrikes for several days. He said Marines attacked Tikrit from the south, west and north, capturing a key Tigris River bridge in the center of town.

Massive explosions, billowing smoke and flashes of light could be seen and heard from Tikrit late yesterday. “I think that’s a city going down,” said Capt. Christopher Aaby, 33, of Menominee, Mich.

U.S. forces had suspected about 2,500 holdouts from the Republican Guard and the paramilitary Saddam’s Fedayeen – and possibly officials from the Iraqi president’s regime – were holed up in the city, 90 miles north of Baghdad.

By late afternoon, however, people began to venture from homes and walk in the streets, with families and children enjoying a beautiful spring afternoon. Shops remained closed. There were no reports of looting.

North of the city, Brig. Gen. John Kelly of the 1st Marine Division, commander of the Tikrit operation, said Tikrit was “the heartland of the beast,” the beast being Saddam.

“If you were a committed regime … guy, I guess you’d come here,” he said.

Describing a pattern in cities taken over by coalition troops, Kelly said Tikrit was no different.

“It was a ghost town when we first arrived,” he said. “Then they (residents) start sticking their noses out and approaching us and start pointing out where Baathists are, and the Fedayeen and the caches of weapons.” Baathists are members of Saddam’s Baath Party.

Some Marines in the streets yesterday were wearing pink flowers on their uniforms, peace offerings from neighborhood residents.

Unlike other major cities, however, many portraits, banners and statues of Saddam remained undamaged.

Abdul al-Jabouri, part of a large group of men gathered at a gas station, said: “We like Saddam Hussein and he has educated our people and we will support him to the end.”

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