Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Friday characterized widespread looting in Iraq as a period of "untidiness" and suggested it was only a transitional phase on the way to freedom from Saddam Hussein's rule.

"We do feel an obligation to assist in providing security, and coalition forces are doing that," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference. "Where they see looting, they are stopping it."

"While no one condones looting, on the other hand, one can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression," he said.

"If you go from a repressive regime...in that transition period, there is untidiness," the secretary said.

Rumsfeld suggested that many of the television images beamed around the world showing acts of looting were being shown repeatedly, exaggerating the effect. Even so, he said, looting is common problem worldwide at times and in places where law enforcement has broken down.

"Stuff happens," he said.

"This is a transition period between war and what we hope will be a much more peaceful time," said Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Both Rumsfeld and Myers expressed satisfaction with the progress of the war, but cautioned anew that much work remained to be done.

Rumsfeld said that as Iraqis' fear of Saddam subsides, "the true sentiments of a large majority, I believe, of the Iraqi people are surfacing. And I think it's increasingly clear that most welcome coalition forces and see them not as invaders or occupiers, but as liberators."

Myers said fighting in the west of Iraq continues, but more and more Iraqis have either surrendered or indicated a willingness to give up.

Giving a progress report on the war, Rumsfeld said that U.S. forces were moving to restore Iraq's radio and television equipment and moving some of their own broadcasting equipment into the capital as well.

"We're doing this because access to free information is critical to building of a free society," he said.

Myers expressed regrets to the families of two Iraqi children killed by Marines when the van the families were riding in didn't stop at a checkpoint in the southern city of Nasiriyah. Nine adults were also injured in the incident.

He called it a reminder to the Iraqi people "to please stop for our check points. We do not wish to harm innocent people."

Rumsfeld shrugged off questions on Saddam's fate and on why arsenals of suspected weapons of mass destruction had not been found.

He said he didn't know if Saddam was dead or alive. "If I had a conviction, I would say so and I don't. And I see a lot of information," Rumsfeld said.

He said he wasn't surprised that biological or chemical weapons have not yet been uncovered, suggesting they are deeply hidden somewhere. "It's a big country," he said. "We're going to find the people" who can help lead allied forces to them, he added.

Myers said that U.S.-led forces were continuing to mop up remaining pockets of resistance in Baghdad.

In northern Iraq, where most of Iraq's remaining military units are believed to be concentrated, "ground forces and special forces are securing Kirkuk and Mosul and are degrading regime forces in and near Tikrit," he said.

Fierce fighting and air strikes have completely destroyed the ability of Iraq's regular army and Republican Guard to mount conventional fighting, and no major military forces remain in the country, other Pentagon officials said earlier Friday.

At the White House, presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "There is no question the regime has lost control and that represents a good turning point for the people of Iraq."

The assessment follows the Pentagon's aggressive targeting Thursday of remaining Iraqi army units in the northern part of the country.

"They are the last significant formations on the battlefield that we're aware of," Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news conference Thursday.

 

 

He said the Iraqi forces' capability has dropped significantly "both from casualties and from people just leaving the battlefield."

On Friday, officials said that Ba'ath Party officials had either fled or gone underground and that there were no clues on the whereabouts of Saddam, his sons or any other regime leadership.

A Pentagon official said there were a few thousand Special Republican Guard remaining in the north, including in the area of Tikrit and Bayji some 25 miles north, but "no obvious significant forces in Tikrit," Saddam's birthplace and a spot where some of his remaining backers are believed to be taking refuge.

At U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar, officials said they had evidence that broken units and stranded soldiers were "coalescing" in the Tikrit area trying to make a last stand. Though there is no major U.S. ground force in the north of Iraq, coalition airstrikes have been pounding the area regularly and coalition special forces have infiltrated the city, officials have said.

Meanwhile, U.S. military forces were working to cut off traffic between Iraq and Syria, which Rumsfeld has accused repeatedly of helping Saddam's regime.

American special operations forces have set up roadblocks along routes to Syria and are searching for fleeing members of the Iraqi regime or fighters and equipment coming in from Syria, a military official said. U.S. aircraft are also watching the routes, and they attacked Iraqi positions near the Syrian border Thursday.

Syrian officials have denied sending military goods into Iraq but they have been silent on whether they are helping Iraqi officials escape. Syria, which joined in the coalition to eject Iraq from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War, has strongly criticized the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.