- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2003

TIKRIT, Iraq Leadership components of the Army's 4th Infantry Division met for lunch yesterday with local leaders here in an attempt to begin the process of winning over Iraqis in Saddam Hussein's ancestral home.
Similar to the daily whirl of conferences under way in Baghdad between military officials and community leaders, the meeting in Tikrit was the first of many in a town where garnering support for Operation Iraqi Freedom may prove difficult.
U.S. troops have set up checkpoints along Highway 1, which goes through Tikrit. A mural of Saddam at the town's entrance is badly damaged.
However, smaller signs depicting the ousted Iraqi dictator holding a shotgun pointed skyward still hang from lamp posts along the highway.
Saddam was born in Tikrit, the home of his ancestral clan, on April 28, 1937, and he had a strong base of support here after he seized control of the country in 1978.
In addition to being Saddam's home, Tikrit also is the birthplace of Saladin, a legendary warrior who commanded Muslim forces against Christians in the Medieval-era Crusades. Saladin is credited with leading the charge that ended Christian rule over Jerusalem.
When told that Saddam's birthday, a week from today, is celebrated as a holiday in Tikrit, one U.S. soldier arriving here over the weekend quipped: "Well, maybe now they can celebrate his death."
Another soldier remarked: "Maybe it would be a good day to declare victory."
Also yesterday, Marines pulled out of Baghdad, heading south toward new positions while Army units took over their former sector. The shift will dramatically reduce the number of U.S. troops in Baghdad, although precise figures were not released.
Soldiers met yesterday with Baghdad community leaders to discuss security concerns, while the U.S.-run Information Radio station read a statement announcing an 11 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew.
"Anyone who violates this curfew will put himself in danger," one announcer said. Another advised people not to carry weapons "because you might be considered a threat to coalition forces."
In Baghdad yesterday, soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division put down their weapons and gathered, camouflage Bibles in hand, to celebrate Christianity's holiest day on the grounds of an Iraqi air defense artillery school.
"Morning. Happy Easter," Chaplain Maj. John Routzhan of the division's 3rd Brigade said to the 30 soldiers present at the first service of the day.
"Hoo-ah!" the soldiers replied. Their equipment was within reach.
Elsewhere, at a military base 35 miles outside Iraq, Marines in shorts and T-shirts stepped inside a basin of water for Christian baptisms.
"Spiritual issues become very important here," said Navy Cmdr. Jim Ellis, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing's chaplain, who performed the baptisms wearing a flight suit. Cmdr. Ellis helped many Marines through the loss of friends in two helicopter crashes, and fears of going to war for the first time.
"A lot of guys are struggling with mortality," he said.
Meanwhile, aviation elements of Task Force Iron Horse, with the Army's 4th Infantry as its backbone, have established a forward operating base on the outskirts of Tikrit, about 90 miles north of Baghdad. Teams of Apache attack helicopters have begun regular missions from here to provide security for ground troops roving through Tikrit and pushing farther north.
As of the weekend, 4th Infantry troops continued to leapfrog north of Baghdad International Airport, rolling through towns and villages between the Iraqi capital and the northern city of Mosul, about 200 miles away.
By yesterday afternoon, Tikrit and its vicinity were fully enveloped by U.S. forces. Military officials said other 4th Infantry units were heading farther north toward Mosul.
While officials have said 70 percent of the U.S. troops in Iraq have switched to the stabilization mode, the other 30 percent still are encountering bits of resistance.
There were reports of action near Tikrit yesterday, with an Apache attack helicopter firing its 30 mm machine gun at an air-defense gun on the ground. But military officials said the Iraqi air defense gun had been deserted and the overall feeling was that hostilities to U.S. forces here have largely diminished.
This article was based in part on wire-service reports.

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