TIKRIT, Iraq - U.S. Marines overran desperate loyalists staging a last stand Monday at Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, crushing the last bastion of major Iraqi resistance and effectively bringing to an end the combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The presidential palace was seized without a fight, the military said, and large numbers of U.S. troops were visible in the afternoon in central Tikrit.
"There was less resistance than we anticipated," said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, U.S. Central Command spokesman, noting that Tikrit's defenders had been subjected to punishing airstrikes over the past 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, smoke billowing, glowing oranges and flashes of light rose from Tikrit late Monday. "I think that's a city going down," said Capt. Christopher Aaby, 33, of Menominee, Mich.
U.S. forces suspected about 2,500 die-hards of the Republican Guard and the paramilitary Fedayeen - and possibly officials from the Iraqi president's regime - were holed up in the city.
By late afternoon, however, people began to venture out of their homes and walk in the streets, with families and children enjoying a beautiful spring afternoon. Shops remained closed. There were no reports of looting.
In the north of the city Brig. Gen. John Kelly of the 1st Marine Division, commander of the Tikrit operation, said the stronghold was "the heartland of the beast."
"The beast is Saddam Hussein," he said. "If you were a committed regime murder guy, I guess you'd come here."
Kelly described what he called a pattern of behavior in cities that the coalition forces have taken over.
"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."
Some of the Marines in the street were wearing pink blossoms on their uniforms from flowers given them by residents of the neighborhood.
Unlike in other major Iraqi cities, however, the many portraits, banners and statues of Saddam remained undamaged.
"We're not going to touch his picture. He's our leader," said Abdul Rahouf Khaled, a construction leader trying to get out of town. Khaled said he wanted the country's next leader to be "someone who is Iraqi and elected by Iraqis."
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."
However, another man approached and said, "Long live the United States."
Some Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard forces abandoned their equipment in recent days, said Capt. Frank Thorp, a Central Command spokesman.
He said U.S. forces to the south and west of the city had created checkpoints to prevent possible regime leaders from escaping. He said what fighting there had been fierce, but there was no information on casualties on either side.
At a recently established checkpoint in the north of the city, U.S. troops stopped cars Monday and searched thoroughly for weapons.
As a Marine shook his head in incomprehension, an Arab resident tried to explain that the three Kalashnikov rifles in his pickup truck were there because he was afraid of looting.
Asked where all the Baathists were, taxi driver Jamal Ahmad said, "they disappeared, they evaporated."
Marine First Lt. Greg Starace of Paramus N.J., said his unit entered the city limits just after dawn Sunday. He estimated at least 3,000 American troops were in Tikrit. Tanks and Humvees rumbled through, and a line of armored vehicles was parked in front of a bazaar.
"As soon as we got here we had some engagements against some small pockets of resistance," he said.
The morning combat came after a night of heavy bombing and after Marines made several forays in and out of the city Sunday, drawing occasional small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
The assaults Sunday did not encounter the intense battle that once seemed likely. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said there was "no organized resistance" in Tikrit.
"A lot of people have disappeared, including the leadership of the Baath party," Rumsfeld told MSNBC on Sunday. "There are people (in Tikrit) who do not have a lot of admiration for the Baathist regime ... who are helping" the Americans."
The Americans destroyed a tank column moving outside the town Sunday and killed a platoon of 15 to 20 Iraqis who attacked the Marines' armored vehicles, the operation's commander, Kelly told a New York Times correspondent.
Cobra helicopters also destroyed six fully loaded but unmanned anti-aircraft guns on the city outskirts before U.S. troops in light armored vehicles began moving into Tikrit on Monday morning, the Marines said.
The Arab TV network Al-Jazeera reported that tribal groups in Tikrit offered to negotiate peace with U.S. forces and hand over some Baath Party leaders in town.
Tikrit, 90 miles north of Baghdad, is the last major city with substantial resistance by Iraqi forces. Saddam was born in the area, and many members of his inner circle come from the region.
After the fall of Baghdad last week, U.S. commanders cautioned that Saddam's regime might try to hold on ferociously to Tikrit. But they played down that possibility in recent days because of desertions and damage from sustained airstrikes.