CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar - The commander of coalition forces in Iraq said U.S. troops pushed into Tikrit on Sunday, a power center for Iraq's Sunni Muslim tribes that is believed to be one of the last strongholds of fighters loyal to President Saddam Hussein.
Gen. Tommy Franks told CNN that U.S. Marines had met no resistance as they entered Tikrit. He did not indicate whether the forces were in the center or the outskirts of town, and did not say whether it had fallen. Tikrit is about 90 miles north of the Iraqi capital.
"I wouldn't say it's over," Franks told CNN. "But I will say we have American forces in Tikrit right now."
Along the way, the Marines rescued seven U.S. soldiers who had been captured by Iraqi forces earlier in the war. An Iraqi told them they would shortly "come in contact with a number of Americans," Franks told Fox News. All were believed to be in good health. They were rescued in the town of Samarra, about 35 miles south of Tikrit, Saddam's hometown.
A task force from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force set out from Baghdad on Saturday; on Sunday they were approaching Tikrit from the south along Highway 1, which passes through Samarra, said Lt. Mark Kitchens, a Central Command spokesman.
U.S. officials have played down the prospect of a major battle in Tikrit because of desertions and damage from repeated airstrikes. The first televised footage from Tikrit, aired live early Sunday by CNN, indicated its northern defenses had been weakened. The CNN crew fled after coming under fire, however.
"It's still unknown how much resistance awaits coalition forces in Tikrit," Kitchens said.
Kitchens said the Marines' orders were to push forward, move north, and if they engage any enemy forces "to attack those forces and eliminate them."
Another prong of Marines that left the capital Saturday met "minimal resistance" along Highway 5 as they moved toward the town of Baqubah, about 30 miles northeast of Baghdad.
The live report by CNN suggested intense U.S. airstrikes had taken a heavy toll on Tikrit's military forces. The convoy of CNN vehicles came under small-arms fire as it tried to enter the city center. A CNN security guard returned fire at least twice, and the news crew quickly drove away.
Two members of the CNN party were injured, according to Eli Flournoy, CNN's senior international assignment editor. He said an Iraqi Kurd serving as a security guard was grazed by a bullet, and a CNN producer was hit by shattered glass.
Before the shooting, CNN correspondent Brent Sadler had reported that U.S. military officers were negotiating with tribal chiefs in Tikrit for a peaceful surrender of the city. But after the gunfire, he said Saddam's loyalists in Tikrit were "clearly still in control."
The Arab news channel Al-Jazeera also reported Sunday that tribal chiefs in Tikrit had requested a cease-fire in order to start negotiations.
As Sadler described the unfolding situation, gunfire was visible hitting the road ahead of them, kicking up dust. "That was a pretty ugly moment," Sadler said. "I have never come under such direct fire."
Central Command spokesman Capt. Stewart Upton said he had no reports of any surrender negotiations with any remnant fighters in the city.
Elsewhere, Special Operations forces were intercepting regime loyalists along Highway 2 between the northern city of Mosul and the Syrian border, and along roads north and south of the town of Bayji, about 25 miles north of Tikrit, Kitchens said.
A U.S. Special Forces soldier was shot and wounded Sunday while on a patrol aimed at improving security in Mosul. Maj. Fred Dummar said the soldier was in a Land Rover, driving past a waving crowd, when a bullet smashed through the rear window and struck his leg. The wound was not believed to be life-threatening, but it was expected the soldier would be evacuated to Germany for further treatment.