WASHINGTON – U.S. commanders are trying to forestall a last stand by Saddam Hussein's loyalists in his hometown of Tikrit by pressing ahead with bombing strikes and special operations missions near the desert city, defense officials said Thursday.
They also are considering moving more ground forces into the area.
The U.S.-led coalition for some time has been working to soften that desert battleground, some 100 miles north of Baghdad.
Special forces have been operating there on such missions as reconnaissance, identifying targets for bombing raids and trying to hunt down regime leadership.
American troops have worked to block roads leading to Tikrit, hoping to keep Iraqi leaders from fleeing there as well as reinforcements from arriving.
Aircraft of the U.S.-led invading coalition have been bombing in the north all along, weakening Iraqi troops that on Thursday still remained "the last significant formations" in Iraq that the Pentagon knew of, according to Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Meanwhile, leaflet drops in the area have encouraged Iraqi forces to surrender -- and given them instructions on exactly how to do so.
Tikrit, a city of 260,000, has an air base and air force academy in addition to a Republican Guard garrison. And if Saddam is still alive, a myriad of possible hiding places include the city's sprawling presidential complexes and the tunnels beneath them.
Saddam built loyalty in the city of his tribesmen by showering largess that turned the Tigris River backwater into a sprawling city after his Ba'ath Party assumed power in 1968.
How fiercely people will fight there remains unknown, as does the exact composition of the force there and their strength, McChrystal said.
One official said Thursday there were elements of eight regular army divisions in the Tikrit area. McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there were 10. They were not considered to be good fighters even before being severely degraded by repeated bombing, he said.
There may also be some Special Republican Guard forces, Fadein paramilitary and fighters of Saddam's Ba'ath Party. Officials said they were trying to figure out exactly what remains of the city's air defenses, as well.
Since Turkey denied U.S. basing needed for a large invading ground force in northern Iraq, the main force there has been special operations troops working with militias of the north's Kurdish minority.
The 4th Infantry Division, delayed by Turkey's long political debate on basing, just recently arrived in Kuwait, and part of it may be ready to move into Iraq in a day or so, officials said.
Americans also have started flying in small numbers of tanks and armored personnel carriers to link up with the paratroopers from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade who are in the north.
As fighting continued in Baghdad and in cities north of Tikrit, commanders said Thursday they had not decided exactly how they might take on Saddam's hometown.
Options included calling in more airstrikes to keep destroying defenses in and around the city. Another was to move the infantry from Kuwait -- either to do the job or to relieve troops in Baghdad, who could then move forward.
"It gives us even more options, either to use forces in the vicinity of Baghdad, to use forces from the north, or some combination, which is in the end probably what'll happen," McChrystal said.