U.S. Marines overran loyalists staging a last stand Monday at Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, ending the major combat phase of the Iraq war.

Saddam's presidential palace was seized without a fight, the military said, and large numbers of U.S. troops were in central Tikrit by Monday afternoon.

"There was less resistance than we anticipated," said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, U.S. Central Command spokesman, noting that Tikrit defenders had been subjected to airstrikes for 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, billowing smoke and flashes of light could be seen and heard from Tikrit late Monday. "I think that's a city going down," said Capt. Christopher Aaby, 33, of Menominee, Mich.

U.S. forces had suspected about 2,500 holdouts from the Republican Guard and the paramilitary Saddam's Fedayeen -- and possibly officials from the Iraqi president's regime -- were holed up in the city, 90 miles north of Baghdad.

By late afternoon, however, people began to venture from homes and walk in the streets, with families and children enjoying a beautiful spring afternoon. Shops remained closed. There were no reports of looting.

North of the city, Brig. Gen. John Kelly of the 1st Marine Division, commander of the Tikrit operation, said Tikrit was "the heartland of the beast," the beast being Saddam.

"If you were a committed regime ... guy, I guess you'd come here," he said.

Describing a pattern in cities taken over by coalition troops, Kelly said Tikrit was no different.

"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."

Baathists are members of Saddam's Baath Party.

Some Marines in the streets on Monday were wearing pink flowers on their uniforms, peace offerings from neighborhood residents.

Unlike other major cities, however, many portraits, banners and statues of Saddam remained undamaged.

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."

But 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 regime leaders from escaping. He said initial fighting had been fierce, but there was no information on casualties.

At a checkpoint in the north of the city, U.S. troops stopped and searched vehicles, looking for weapons.

One Arab resident said he was carrying three Kalashnikov rifles in his pickup truck because he was afraid of looting. A Marine shook his head in disbelief.

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 just after dawn Sunday and estimated at least 3,000 American troops were now 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.

But, 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 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.