A daily commentary by Brian Whitaker, originally published on the Guardian website.
The battle for Baghdad is about to begin in earnest, according to numerous reports this morning. The invasion forces are said to be "poised" and a massive ground offensive is "imminent".
US planners appear satisfied that continuous pounding by bombs has left the Republican Guard forces who protect the Iraqi capital sufficiently "degraded" (as the military put it) for the war to move on to the next phase. The important Medina division of the Republican Guard has been reduced to 50% of its fighting strength, the Pentagon says.
These moves also imply that the US has now secured its long supply lines which until recently seemed dangerously exposed.
It is still uncertain what will happen next. One scenario is that US forces will encircle the Baghdad - in effect besieging it. Another is that they will attempt to "punch through" the Republican Guard into the city itself.
A source at Centcom in Qatar is quoted as saying: "The next four days will be critical", so the picture should be much clearer by Saturday.
Amid the talk of capturing Baghdad, the Guardian reports that Pentagon experts have spent several months observing Israeli military operations in Palestinian cities, and have been studying videos of the assault on Jenin last year.
The article quotes a retired Israeli brigadier-general: "An urban environment is the great equaliser. You can't utilise your superiority in training and equipment. It's very easy for your adversary to hide and he usually knows the terrain much better than you."
Meanwhile, Iraq's government-in-waiting, which the US is setting up under great secrecy in Kuwait, is beset by political turmoil. Pentagon hardliners appear to be mounting a coup d'etat even before the government has any territory to control.
Apart from the attempt by Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defence secretary, to install Ahmed Chalabi, the failed Iraqi banker, and his cronies in advisory positions (since all the ministerial posts will be filled by Americans), the Pentagon has also ousted eight senior officials nominated by the US state department.
The Pentagon is seeking to replace the state department people, who include several ambassadors, with a bunch of neo-conservative hawks - most notably James Woolsey, a former CIA director.
One of the first concerns of this government-in-waiting is what to do about Iraqi banknotes which - horror of horrors - carry a picture of Saddam Hussein. Their solution, according to the Washington Post, is to scrap the Iraqi dinar and replace it with the US dollar. This will doubtless be viewed by all Iraqis as conclusive proof of America's imperialist intentions.
Several major Iraqi opposition groups, such as the Kurdistan Democratic party and the Iraqi National Accord, say they have been excluded from discussions about the interim government. A KDP official yesterday described the US plans as "not workable at all".
Although Britain has been consulted, it also seems unhappy about US plans to establish neo-colonial rule, even if it's supposed to be temporary. Prime minister Tony Blair yesterday called for a UN-sponsored conference of all groups to start reshaping Iraq's future.
Most reports so far suggest that the Pentagon's government will be very short-term - 90 days is the period mentioned - and that it will not start to take over until Saddam Hussein has been removed. However, if resistance in Baghdad is prolonged, it may assume control over the "liberated" parts of Iraq earlier. It is possible, therefore, that by the time Saddam falls, a new Pentagon regime will have become firmly entrenched on Iraqi soil.
Overnight, Centcom gave a highly unusual 3.30am briefing to announce that 19-year-old Private Jessica Lynch, who disappeared during an ambush near Nassiriyah last week, had been rescued from an Iraqi hospital.
Accounts of the extraordinary efforts that went into the search-and-rescue mission will undoubtedly serve as a moral-booster for US troops, and among the American public.
But this also contrasts with accounts of an American assault on a village near Babylon yesterday which killed dozens of civilians, according to the Iraqi authorities. Reuters correspondents on the spot have confirmed that the dead include at least nine children.
Note: An item in yesterday's Daily Briefing, which traced a metal fragment found in the bombed Iraqi market place to the Raytheon company in the US, has brought a flurry of emails from readers. Some say the markings on the fragment indicate that it was not from a cruise missile but from a HARM missile, which is also made by Raytheon. We're looking into it and hope to report back shortly.
Yesterday was the best day for US forces since the invasion began. They appear to have broken through Iraqi lines at two key points outside Baghdad.
In the south-west, the 3rd Infantry Division passed Karbala to come within 19 miles of the Iraqi capital. This was made possible by sealing off the exit routes from Karbala to forestall Iraqi resistance, rather than attempting a much longer operation to seize control of the city itself.
Further east, US forces reportedly "destroyed" the 12,000-strong Baghdad Division of the Republican Guard near Kut, seized a strategic bridge across the Tigris river, and moved up the Tigris valley to within 40 miles of the capital.
This morning, there are reports that two of Iraq's northernmost Republican Guard elements, the Adnan and Nebuchadnezzar divisions, are moving south towards Baghdad, apparently to assist other Iraqi forces which are under attack.
Further reports suggest that US forces are now within six miles of Baghdad, with Republican Guards advancing towards them as the long-anticipated ground battle for the capital approaches.
Overnight, for the first time during the war, Iraq shot down an American jet fighter - a naval F/A-18C Hornet operating from the USS Kitty Hawk. It has previously shot down several helicopters and unmanned drones.
An US helicopter went down in southern Iraq, though contradictory accounts of what happened have been given. Centcom says that the aircraft crashed, while the Pentagon says that it was shot down. At least six people on board are reported to have died.
These losses aside, developments around Baghdad mean that the US generally has a more positive story to tell than during the first two weeks of the war. However, that could shortly change again, depending on how it approaches the conquest of Baghdad.
The UK has also recovered its balance on the propaganda front. Essentially, the British line involves distancing itself from the more extreme elements of US policy. It is opposing US threats to Syria and Iran, proposing more UN involvement in a post-war Iraq, and differentiating British troops on the ground from the Americans by portraying them as approachable people who are doing the best to make friends with ordinary Iraqis.
The British army has begun publicising the "community relations" training given to every soldier, a relic of empire and the conflict in Northern Ireland. One interesting detail in this is that British troops in Iraq are forbidden to wear sunglasses, because that would prevent them from making normal eye contact with Iraqi citizens.
One British officer, interviewed on BBC radio last night, painted a glowing picture of the army's community relations, and said that he had never known a war in which some of his troops had not ended up marrying local women.
Iraq, meanwhile, scored a disastrous propaganda own goal yesterday by expelling one of al-Jazeera's two correspondents in Baghdad, and telling the other, an Iraqi citizen, that he could no longer report for the Qatar-based TV channel.
It appears that one of the reporters caused offence by trying to interview ordinary Iraqis without having a government "minder" present. Al-Jazeera reacted by saying that it would withdraw all its correspondents from Baghdad, Basra and Mosul (although it will continue to show film from those areas).
The Arabic channel had previously been accused by the US of acting as a mouthpiece for the Baghdad regime, but the Iraqi government's move is likely to enhance its reputation for independent reporting.
The most important battle of the war, over the future shape of Iraq, continues to rage behind the scenes in Washington and in a cluster of beachside villas in Kuwait, where the government-in-waiting is being assembled.
Moves to replace the Ba'athists with a Pentagon regime dominated by American neo-conservatives (nicknamed "Wolfie's people", as they are protegees of deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz) are being resisted by the state department, virtually the whole of the Iraqi opposition movement and, to some extent, Britain. Detailed articles on this theme appear this morning in the New York Times and the Financial Times.
So far, beside Jay Garner, the former US general who is notionally in charge of the future government, a number of names have emerged. They include:
· James Woolsey: the former CIA director is favoured by Mr Wolfowitz to head the information ministry, although the White House says he is unsuitable for that. He is likely to be offered an alternative post.
· Robert Reilly: former head of Voice of America radio. Currently working on post-Saddam broadcasts.
· Timothy Carney: former US ambassador to Sudan, scheduled to run the industry ministry. Mr Wolfowitz invited him to join, but has since turned against him.
· Barbara Bodine: former US ambassador to Yemen. She is due to become governor of Baghdad, and has started work in Kuwait, but is opposed by the Pentagon. While in Yemen, she alienated US hardliners by advocating a "sensitive" approach following the attack on the USS Cole.
· Robin Raphel: former US ambassador to Tunisia, scheduled to run the trade ministry. He is held back in Washington following opposition from the Pentagon.
· Kenton Keith: former US ambassador to Qatar, scheduled to run the foreign ministry. Also held back in Washington following opposition from the Pentagon.
· Buck Walters: retired US general, scheduled to take charge of southern Iraq.
· George Ward: former US Marine and ambassador to Namibia, due to take charge of coordinating humanitarian assistance.
· Lewis Lucke: veteran of USAID, due to take charge of reconstruction.
· Michael Mobbs: lawyer and close associate of Douglas Feith, the under secretary for defence policy; due to take charge of civil administration.
Saddam international airport, 10 miles to the west of central Baghdad, appears to be mainly in American hands today, after a fierce battle in which 320 Iraqi soldiers died, according to the US military.
However, an early morning report by a BBC correspondent said the Iraqis remain in full control of the road leading from the airport into the city and seem to be piling reinforcements into the area. CNN said loudspeakers in Baghdad were urging citizens to go to the airport and help to defend it.
Control of the airport would provide a huge boost to the invasion forces, allowing them to fly in supplies and equipment almost to the spot where they will be needed. Its civilian runway - 13,000 feet long - is capable of taking the biggest military aircraft. A military runway at the side - 8,800 feet long - is suitable for use by fighter jets.
The state of the runways and the air traffic control system is unclear, and following the overnight battle they may need repairs before they can be used.
Large parts of the Iraqi capital were still without electricity this morning, following a blackout at 8pm Baghdad time last night.
The US says it did not "intentionally" cause the power failure but there is speculation that a "blackout bomb" may have been used. This special weapon, previously used in Kosovo, causes electrical short-circuits but is controversial because it affects civilians by cutting off vital hospital equipment as well as pumped water and sewage systems.
It is thought that special forces may have used the blackout to enter Baghdad, either to attack key points of the city or simply to reconnoitre.
There is still great uncertainty in the media about likely American and Iraqi tactics in the main battle for Baghdad. It is possible that the US has not yet decided but will choose from a number of options on the basis of the latest intelligence from inside the Iraqi capital. It may even adopt different methods in different parts of the city and adjust the tactics as it proceeds.
Because of the risk of heavy casualties during the next phase of the war, it would be surprising if secret contacts were not under way to explore the possibility of an Iraqi surrender.
Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, set out his bottom line for Iraq's surrender at a press conference yesterday when he rejected any deal that would allow Saddam Hussein to flee the country but invited the Iraqi army to do business with him. "For the senior leadership, there is no way out. Their fate has been sealed by their actions," he said.
But he added: "The same is not true for the Iraqi armed forces. Iraqi officers and soldiers can still survive and help to rebuild a free Iraq if they do the right thing. They must now decide whether they want to share the fate of Saddam Hussein..."
So far, it has been widely assumed that the war will end with the fall of Saddam, but there are indications that it may not be as tidy as that. A thoughtful article in the Washington Post this morning ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A23898-2003Apr3.html) discusses the question of how and when the US might declare itself victorious.
The paper quotes James Steinberg, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, as saying: "There isn't going to be a single moment when we can say, 'Okay, good. This is done.' "
"Even if we got a formal surrender," he continued, "there would still be a lot of challenges going forward. So it's right to be modest about saying that you've 'won', just because certain phases of the battle are over."
One example of the difficulties that may be in store came yesterday from Nasiriya where a group of armed men attacked the main hospital after the departure of US marines who had been guarding it. Many patients fled, according to a BBC reporter on the spot.
Later, an Iraqi man was shot dead after reportedly refusing to hand over his vehicle to armed men. Looting and "civilian" violence is widespread in the town. Many citizens also seem terrified of talking to journalists.
Large-scale urban crime is quite rare in Arab societies and the events in Nasiriya may not be the result of normal criminal activity; there are hints that the trouble is caused by people connected to the Baathist regime.
Although the Iraqi military have largely been driven out of the areas "secured" by British and American forces, there is still the problem of the secret police and other Baathist agents who spy on the populace and apparently continue to intimidate them.
British forces stepped up their "hearts and minds" campaign yesterday with a soccer match in Khor al-Zubahir, near Basra, between the Royal Marines and an Iraqi team whose captain wore an Arsenal strip. The Iraqis won a resounding victory, by nine goals to three.
More controversially, a group of evangelical Christians are planning their own battle for hearts and minds in Iraq. The project, Samaritan's Purse, is funded by American churchgoers and will supposedly provide humanitarian aid to Iraqis without religious strings attached.
But it is led by the Reverend Franklin Graham, who delivered the invocation at President Bush's inauguration. Mr Graham once described Islam as a "wicked, violent" religion and said that Christianity and Islam were as "different as lightness and darkness".
Update: The US is investigating the possibility that a Hornet fighter jet apparently shot down by the Iraqis (Daily Briefing, April 3) could have been hit by "friendly fire" from a Patriot missile.
On the day the US celebrated the capture of Saddam International Airport by renaming it Baghdad International Airport, Saddam Hussein popped up on television to steal the show.
The allegedly dead Iraqi leader appeared twice, first with a speech to rally the people of Baghdad to the defence of their capital, and later in an astonishingly relaxed walkabout where he was greeted by cheers and kisses from citizens.
The propaganda message behind this, for any Iraqis who might be tempted to switch their allegiance, was that Saddam is still in charge.
There is little doubt that the man who delivered the TV speech in a distinctly rasping voice was indeed Saddam Hussein. Even if it was pre-recorded, it referred to the downing of an American Apache helicopter that occurred on March 23. This at least establishes beyond reasonable doubt that Saddam survived the impromptu $40m assassination attempt that opened the war.
The identity of the figure in the Baghdad walkabout is less certain. Use of a hand-held camera, together with the constant movement of the crowd, made it difficult to get a steady view of his face. The 12-minute film was certainly quite recent, since smoke from oil fires could be seen at times in the background and there were shots of minor bomb damage.
Some Iraqis say the man's body language, and even the shape of his paunch, were very distinctive - and if Iraqis are convinced by the authenticity of the film it will have served its political purpose.
This morning, up to eight US Abrams tanks are reported to have entered the southern outskirts of Baghdad on a reconnaissance mission. This is said to be the furthest they have yet ventured into the city.
Looking ahead to possible events over the next few days, an article in Slate magazine describes seven US battle options for Baghdad, apparently based on a secret study by the Pentagon. In typical military jargon, these options are named as "Isolation Siege", "Remote Strike (Rubbising)", "Ground Assault, Frontal", "Nodal Isolation", "Nodal Capture", "Segment and Capture" and "Softpoint Capture and Expansion".
The article explains what each of them means, although it does not indicate which of them the Pentagon prefers.
Also this morning, the US says it has captured the headquarters of the Republican Guard's important Medina division in Suwayrah, about 35 miles south east of Baghdad. First reports suggest that American forces were unopposed because the Iraqis had abandoned their posts.
In other developments overnight, the US says two marine pilots died when their Super Cobra attack helicopter crashed in central Iraq; and an American soldier, Sergeant Hasan Akbar, has been charged with the murder of two officers and 17 attempted murders in connection with the grenade attack at a US army camp in Kuwait on March 25.
A reporter for ABC News says seven civilians, including three children, died when US marines fired at two lorries that refused to stop at a checkpoint south of Baghdad.
It was announced yesterday that President George Bush and the British prime minister, Tony Blair, are to hold another of their "war summits" on Monday and Tuesday - this time in northern Ireland.
During the last 24 hours there has been some excited media coverage relating to Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, although there is no confirmation so far that any have been found by the invading forces.
At a press conference yesterday, the Iraq information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, speaking in Arabic, threatened "non-traditional action" at Baghdad airport and said it would take place overnight (though it appears not to have happened).
First reports translated the phrase as "non-conventional" - implying an intention to use weapons of mass destruction. The minister made clear this was not what he had in mind. Later reports amended the translation to "unconventional". Yesterday, US forces reportedly discovered quantities of "white powder" and "clear liquid". The subliminal message here was that the powder might be anthrax, although preliminary tests suggest it was some kind of explosive, according to the US.
Another report mentioned the discovery of cyanide in river water, but a simple internet search shows that cyanide compounds are often found in industrial waste water. There is also cyanide in various foods, such as almonds, and in cigarette smoke.
Five people, including three American special forces troops, died yesterday when a car blew up at a checkpoint in central Iraq. The assumption is that it was another suicide attack (the second since the invasion began), but doubts were raised when Centcom said a pregnant woman - who was among those killed - stepped out of the car "screaming in fear" just before the explosion.
There are also doubts about the earlier "suicide" bombing on March 29. Western intelligence sources now say the driver of the taxi involved may have had no idea he was carrying a bomb. Forensic evidence indicates the blast could have been triggered by remote control, they say.
As with so many events in this war, it is becoming increasingly difficult to know which version is true.
With 25 Abrams tanks and 12 Bradley armoured vehicles, US forces made a three-hour tour through south-western Baghdad yesterday, reportedly killing up to 1,000 Iraqis and destroying 100 vehicles.
The purpose of the incursion was partly psychological and partly to test the strength of the city's internal defences. The route taken, which for a time cut off the Yarmuk district from the rest of the city, may indicate that the US favours the "segment and capture" option for conquering Baghdad (Daily briefing, April 4). The aim of this would be to pick off one district of the city at a time, starting with those that are least defended and most likely to welcome the Americans.
Inside Baghdad, defenders armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades have been reported taking up positions at road junctions. The sinister black-clad Fedayeen militia, controlled by Saddam Hussein's son, Uday, have been seen on the streets for the first time since the war began.
Iraq television yesterday showed what it said was more footage of President Saddam - laughing and chatting with Uday, his younger son, Qusay, senior aides and commanders. It was unclear when the film was made.
The US says it now has 7,000 troops positioned at Baghdad airport and the next priority there is for military engineers to clear the debris, make repairs and prepare the runway for use. The US also says it has begun 24-hour surveillance of Baghdad from the air.
As an indication of the huge logistics operation that is taking place, AP reports that 2,500 or more supply vehicles travel north from Kuwait every day. Troops in the field drink 1.5m litres of water and eat 330,000 plastic-wrapped meals daily. A total of 65m gallons of fuel is also moving along the road, according to US central command.
Early this morning Iraqi television announced a night-time travel ban for entering and leaving Baghdad. This may be a safety measure because of shelling on the outskirts, but it followed reports yesterday that thousands of civilians were fleeing the city.
In northern Iraq, Kurdish forces are said to be continuing their advance towards Mosul and Kirkuk helped by US air cover.
The Kurds would like to capture both cities, but at some point soon the Americans may have to halt their advance, for fear of angering Turkey which does not want the Kurds to become too powerful.
There are suggestions this morning that the new Pentagon-run government of Iraq may start operating this week - possibly as early as Tuesday - in Umm Qasr, just across the border from Kuwait where it is currently getting ready for work in a cluster of seaside villas.
There is a growing debate in the US media about the secretive way the government is being assembled, about the sidelining of the Iraqi opposition and the UN, and the efforts by extreme neo-conservative elements in the Pentagon to seize control.
This issue is likely to be high on the agenda when the British prime minister, Tony Blair, meets the US president, George Bush, for a "war summit" in northern Ireland tomorrow.
Mr Blair reportedly wants extensive UN involvement but the Bush administration is divided. Mr Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, says that a UN role is not under discussion, while the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, says discussions have already begun.
The arguments are explored further by the Washington Post this morning.
The same paper also carries an article by two members of the US Senate foreign relations committee - Joseph Biden (Democrat) and Chuck Hagel (Republican) - calling for a sensitive and internationalist approach to "winning the peace" in Iraq.
US forces stormed into central Baghdad early today, taking over Saddam Hussein's newest presidential palace on the banks of Tigris river. Troops were also seen close to the information ministry and the Rashid Hotel.
An officer from the US Third Infantry Division told Fox News that troops had carried an American flag into the palace. "Saddam Hussein says he owns Baghdad. We own Baghdad. We own his palaces, we own downtown," the officer said.
However, military sources emphasised that they were not yet attempting to capture the city, saying that the operation was intended to be "a dramatic show of force" to demonstrate that US troops could enter Baghdad anywhere, at any time.
Nevertheless, this morning's incursion, with more than 70 tanks and 60 armoured vehicles, was by far the largest so far. It was also the first time that US forces have entered the city centre.
A number of Iraqi tanks positioned in the city are said to have been destroyed from the air. Iraqi resistance on the ground seems to have been relatively weak, although that does not necessarily mean that the number of Iraqi casualties was small.
Iraqi hospitals lost count of casualties during the three-hour US incursion on Saturday, but the number of dead is thought to be in the hundreds, and could possibly be more than 1,000.
In the south, British forces say that they have gained control of most of Basra, Iraq's second city, although "isolated pockets" of resistance are continuing.
The breakthrough followed the destruction of the Ba'ath party headquarters in the city, and a similar attack on Saturday on the headquarters of Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan Majid, known as Chemical Ali, who had been placed in charge of defending southern Iraq. This morning, British officials said that Chemical Ali had been killed.
In the worst case of "friendly fire" since the invasion began, a US warplane in northern Iraq yesterday attacked a Kurdish convoy travelling with US special forces. At least 18 people were killed, including Wajid Barzani, brother of the Kurdistan Democratic party's leader, and Kamaran Mohammed, a BBC translator.
John Simpson, the BBC's world affairs editor, survived with a piece of shrapnel in his flak jacket, and other members of the BBC team suffered minor injuries.
Despite all the Iraqi setbacks, information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf continues his bravura performances from behind a forest of microphones at Baghdad's Palestine Hotel.
Wearing his customary black beret, and with rimless spectacles perched on his nose, he gave some astonishingly detailed and authoritative-sounding accounts of Iraqi military successes yesterday, including the news that US forces at Baghdad airport have been butchered and driven out.
This morning, he was on exceptionally good form. "Their infidels are committing suicide by the hundreds on the gates of Baghdad," he said. "Be assured, Baghdad is safe, protected."
During the war, Mr al-Sahaf has emerged as the only truly entertaining character in the Iraqi regime. It is to be hoped that he survives, because he really ought to be given his own TV show somewhere.
He will be a hard act to follow, but James Woolsey, the man favoured by the Pentagon to take over the Iraqi information ministry, is already shaping up to the job, despite objections from the White House.
Mr Woolsey, a former CIA director, spoke at a university teach-in in Los Angeles last week, where he said that the US is now engaged in world war four, and that it could continue for years. World war three, in case anyone missed it, was the cold war with the Soviet Union, he said.
"This fourth world war, I think, will last considerably longer than either world wars one or two did for us," said Mr Woolsey, adding: "Hopefully not the full four-plus decades of the cold war."
"As we move toward a new Middle East, over the years and, I think, over the decades to come ... we will make a lot of people very nervous. Our response should be 'Good!' "
Addressing the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and the leaders of Saudi Arabia, he said, "We want you nervous. We want you to realise now, for the fourth time in 100 years, this country and its allies are on the march and that we are on the side of those whom you - the Mubaraks, the Saudi Royal family - most fear: we're on the side of your own people."
Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy US defence secretary and a leading hawk, waded into arguments about the post-Saddam rule of Iraq yesterday when he suggested that the new Pentagon-controlled regime would last for more than six months. Officially, it is supposed to last for no more than 90 days.
Mr Wolfowitz also cast doubt on the likelihood of significant UN involvement in the transition. This issue is almost certain to be raised by the British prime minister, Tony Blair, when he meets President Bush in northern Ireland later today.
Meanwhile, Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial head of the opposition Iraqi National Congress, disappeared from the Kurdish area of northern Iraq over the weekend. He is reported to have been flown by, the US, to Nassiriya, in the south.
According to Mr Chalabi, hundreds of "soldiers" from the Iraqi National Congress have now joined the campaign to get rid of Saddam Hussein, and will fight alongside coalition forces in southern and central Iraq.
"We are proud to contribute our forces to Operation Iraqi Freedom. The war of national liberation, which Iraqis have waged for 30 years, is nearing its end," he said.
This is rather less grand than it sounds. Mr Chalabi's men are actually under US control and belong to the Free Iraqi Forces, a group of up to 3,000 volunteers who are mainly Iraqi exiles or Americans of Iraqi origin. They have been trained by the US for liaison with Iraqi civilians and aid organisations rather than fighting, although they have also learned to use small arms for self-defence.
There is new speculation about the fate of Saddam Hussein today after the US destroyed a house in Baghdad in an attempt to assassinate him.
A single B-1 warplane dropped four 2,000lb bombs on the house, in the middle-class Mansour district of the city, yesterday afternoon but the purpose of the mission was not revealed by the Pentagon until 12 hours later.
One of the bunker-busting bombs left a crater 30ft deep and 50ft wide in the road. Witnesses said two houses were flattened and four other buildings badly damaged. Various reports put the number of Iraqi dead at between eight and 16.
US officials say they believe Saddam Hussein and his sons, Qusay and Uday, were in the building at the time. They say the attack was the result of intelligence from three "credible" sources, including a listening device planted in the building. A voice similar to that of Saddam had allegedly been heard discussing routes out of the city.
During the 1991 Gulf war, the Iraqi leader spent much of his time in ordinary houses, believing them to be less prone to attack than his palaces and bunkers.
A group of American soldiers have spent their first night in central Baghdad, as uninvited guests at one of the presidential palaces. Pictures from inside the palace, showing a mixture of opulence and destruction, figure strongly in the newspapers this morning. Predictably, one of the marble-clad bathrooms was found to have gold taps.
Renewed fighting was reported from around the palace early today, though it was unclear whether the building had come under attack from Iraqi forces or whether the Americans were trying to extend their area of control.
Elsewhere in Baghdad, troops and some civilians have been removing the most visible symbols of Saddam's power. In Zawra Park, according to CNN, a 40ft statue of the Iraqi leader mounted on horseback crashed to the ground when American soldiers shot the legs off.
The information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who is now Iraq's most celebrated TV personality, gave another cheerful press conference from the roof of the Palestine Hotel yesterday, announcing that "Baghdad is safe" as smoke wafted across the sky behind him and Iraqi troops on the opposite bank of the river ran for cover.
Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross has warned that hospitals in Baghdad are being overwhelmed by new patients, are running out of medicine and are short of water and electricity.
An ICRC spokesman said surgeons at al-Kindi hospital in north-eastern Baghdad "have been working round the clock for the past two days and most are exhausted. Conditions are terrible".
In Basra, British troops were seen on television yesterday patrolling streets of the old city on foot - a sign that the security situation is improving. But there is also extensive looting of official buildings (including a further education college) for furniture, computers, electrical items and even floorboards. A BBC correspondent reported seeing a grand piano stolen from a hotel being wheeled along the street.
British forces say their priority in Basra at the moment is to deal with "pockets" of military resistance rather than to maintain civilian law and order.
US forces said yesterday that they may have found stores of the nerve agent sarin and other biological and chemical weapons at a camp near Hindiyah in central Iraq. Throughout the war the US has been seeking proof of its claim that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.
Several "finds" have been reported but none has been confirmed. Tests on material in the latest discovery are expected to take several days.
President George Bush and the British prime minister, Tony Blair, are continuing their talks in northern Ireland today. A key issue is differences of opinion between the two leaders on the rebuilding and future government of Iraq.
Jay Garner, the former US general who is setting up the "transitional" Pentagon-controlled government of Iraq from his base in Kuwait, was due to give a press conference yesterday but it was cancelled at the last minute. No reason was given, though continued behind-the-scenes wrangling is the most likely explanation.
The Guardian reports today that Britain hopes to appoint Major General Tim Cross, a logistics expert, as Mr Garner's deputy. General Cross, who previously organised refugee camps in Macedonia and Kosovo, has been coordinating humanitarian aid to the port of Umm Qasr in southern Iraq.
Al-Jazeera television channel said this morning that its Baghdad office had been hit by American bombing. One cameraman was injured and another member of the team is missing, the station said.
The Kabul office of the Qatar-based channel, which has often incurred the wrath of the US, was hit by American "smart" bombs during the war in Afghanistan. Before the invasion of Iraq began, al-Jazeera said it would be supplying the geographical coordinates of its Baghdad office to the US military, so there would be no excuse this time for hitting it by mistake.
Al-Jazeera's new English-language website has also been shut down several times in the past fortnight by cyber attacks that some believe are officially organised.
More details have emerged of American propaganda broadcasting to Iraq, some of which comes from aircraft operating out of a small US base known as Camp Snoopy, at Doha airport in Qatar. Mika Makelainen, a Finnish radio enthusiast, has published a full report on his website.
Chaos and jubilation broke out in Baghdad this morning amid signs that Saddam Hussein's regime has lost control of the city.
Television showed scenes of citizens attacking images of the Iraqi leader, while others cheerfully made off with whatever they could grab from shops and other buildings.
Overnight, US marines fanned out through Saddam city, the Shia suburb, where they were greeted by smiling Iraqis.
Some feeble resistance was reported in the city centre, but the people of Baghdad had clearly decided Saddam cannot threaten them again.
Reuters reported that in one Baghdad street a white-haired man used his shoe to beat a picture of the fallen president while a younger man spat on the portrait.
"Come see, this is freedom ... this is the criminal, this is the infidel," he said. "This is the destiny of every traitor ... he killed millions of us. Oh people this is freedom."
Elsewhere, people emerged from buildings with looted electronic equipment, furniture, clocks, and even bunches of flowers. Some loaded them into cars and drove off.
Near the Palestine hotel about two dozen Arab volunteers, who had come to help defend Baghdad from the US-led invasion, pleaded desperately with taxi drivers to take them back to Syria.
In Qatar, however, a US military spokesman cautioned that it was too early to say the war was over. "I think it's premature to talk about the end of this operation yet," Captain Frank Thorp said.
"There may be many more fierce fighting days in front of us as coalition forces continue to move within Baghdad and within the country."
He added that the half of the country north of Baghdad had not yet been occupied by the US-led forces - including Saddam's home town, Tikrit, 110 miles north of the capital.
The apparent collapse of the regime followed an attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein on Monday, when a building in the Mansour district of Baghdad was hit by four 2,000lb bombs. The building is said to have incorporated a restaurant with a secret bunker at the back.
However, several reports citing British intelligences sources say the Iraqi leader probably survived.
Some 40 Iraqi officials are believed to have been meeting Saddam and his two sons in the building, though they may have left a few minutes before the attack.
Yesterday, American forces launched two separate attacks on international media centres in Baghdad, killing three journalists.
Amnesty International and the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists have both called for an investigation.
In one attack, an American tank fired a shell at the 15th floor of the Palestine hotel, where most of the "non-embedded" journalists in the Iraqi capital are staying.
Central command in Qatar initially said there had been "significant enemy fire" from the hotel and "consistent with the inherent right of self-defence, coalition forces returned fire".
Numerous journalists on the spot dismissed centcom's claim as untrue and said there had been no firing from the hotel.
Centcom spokesman Vincent Brooks also implied the hotel was a legitimate target by saying it was used for "other regime purposes" - an apparent reference to press conferences given in the hotel by the Iraqi information minister.
Earlier in the day, two bombs hit the offices of al-Jazeera television during an American air raid. Abu Dhabi television nearby, whose identity is spelt out in large letters on the roof, also came under fire.
Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi are the only international TV stations with a permanent presence in Iraq. Al-Jazeera had previously sent the georgaphical coordinates of its office to the Pentagon in the hope of avoiding an American attack similar to the one that destroyed its office in Kabul during the Afghan war - but apparently to no avail.
Centcom claimed that US forces had come under fire from al-Jazeera's building.
Although media organisations do not claim special protection during wars, these well-publicised attacks highlight a more general concern about the invasion forces' attitude towards civilians, especially in Baghdad.
Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the opposition Iraqi National Congress, has allegedly received an enthusiastic welcome in southern Iraq.
The controversial Mr Chalabi, who wants to be prime minister, was flown to Nassiriya by the US military on Sunday, despite objections from the CIA and state department that he is not a credible leader.
His spokesman, Francis Brooke, told Reuters yesterday: "We have been receiving delegation upon delegation [of local Iraqis]. We don't have time to meet them all. We are inundated."
But the US is reportedly annoyed by some freelance military activity from Abu Hatem Mohammed Ali, a guerilla leader associated with the INC.
Abu Hatem, along with several thousand armed men, is said to have "captured" the headquarters of Amara governorate, 230 miles southeast of Baghdad, without American support.
According to Reuters, he then left the building when the CIA threatened to have it bombed if he stayed.
Tony Blair - his eyes flashing like an American evangelist - and President Bush - his eyes suggesting it was well past his bedtime - concluded their two-day meeting in northern Ireland yesterday.
Mr Blair's main task was to persuade Mr Bush to accept more UN involvement in postwar Iraq. (Britain, of course, always opposed any UN involvement in the northern Ireland conflict.)
The outcome was a joint statement that the UN has a "vital role" to play in the reconstruction of Iraq.
This was slightly reminiscent of the way British governments tell nurses, firefighters, roadsweepers, etc, that they are playing a vital role but, sorry, they can't have any more money just at the moment.
Someone produced a sledgehammer, and Iraqis took it in turns to hack at the base of the giant statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.
They were making reasonable progress, and might well have toppled it after a few hours, but that would have been too late for primetime TV. The Americans were getting impatient, and their armoured vehicle lumbered up the podium steps with the elegance of a sexually aroused hippopotamus.
Removing this visible sign of a quarter-century of dictatorship from Baghdad yesterday was a highly symbolic act, but so was the manner of its removal: a metaphor for the ongoing debate about who will really be in charge of the new political order.
When it came to toppling Saddam's statue, the Iraqis were soon elbowed out of the way.
US armoured vehicles are like Swiss army knives, fitted with gadgets that are useful in all kinds of predicaments, so long as you can find the right one in a hurry. This particular armoured vehicle had a device that seemed tailor-made for removing colossal statues of deposed presidents.
A jib with a hook and chain on the end slowly extended up to Saddam's chest. A soldier climbed up the jib, hooked the chain around Saddam's neck, and produced a US flag, which he draped over the Iraqi leader's head.
There was some applause from the Iraqi crowd, but an Iraqi commentator on the BBC was aghast, and you could almost hear the shouts from Centcom's PR department in Qatar: "Get that flag down, now!"
This was exactly the sort of triumphalism that had caused so much trouble when troops hoisted the stars and stripes over Umm Qasr in the early days of the war: completely off-message. It's supposed to be a war of liberation, not of conquest.
The US flag duly came down and an Iraqi flag appeared, miraculously, from the crowd. A soldier draped it, rather grudgingly, around Saddam's neck, and then that, too, was removed.
Finally, the crowd was ushered back, the armoured vehicle slowly reversed and the chain tightened. With more grace than he ever displayed in power, Saddam Hussein made his final bow.
In Britain, we call this sort of thing criminal damage, and you can get three months in jail for it, as 37-year-old Paul Kelleher discovered recently when he beheaded a marble effigy of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Poor Mr Kelleher: wrong time, wrong place, wrong statue.
There are no statues of Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq just yet, but it is probably only a matter of time. With attention focused on Baghdad, the controversial would-be prime minister has been up to more mischief in Nassiriya, where the Pentagon hawks helped him to set up a base last weekend.
Mr Chalabi plans to convene a meeting of Iraqi opposition figures in Nassiriya on Saturday, viewed by the US state department as an attempt to organise his own "coronation".
Yesterday, state department officials moved quickly to undermine Mr Chalabi's efforts by saying that a joint meeting of "liberated Iraqis" and opposition members from outside Iraq will be held soon, although the date and location have yet to be set. "It will be our meeting and our guest list, not Chalabi's," a Bush administration official said.
Britain has also pre-empted Mr Chalabi (and perhaps the Pentagon, too) by appointing an unnamed tribal sheikh to run Basra province. Sketchy information about this was given by Colonel Chris Vernon, spokesman for the British forces, at a press briefing on Tuesday.
One journalist at the briefing asked how the sheikh was chosen: was he simply the first Iraqi to volunteer? Yes, said Colonel Vernon, although the British had been aware of his name beforehand.
The sheikh had been given the job after a two-hour interview with a divisional commander, and was "very pleased" with the arrangements proposed by the British. An Arab journalist then suggested that the sheikh, as a tribal leader, was likely to promote members of his own tribe to key posts.
Colonel Vernon seemed surprised by this, and agreed that Britain would have to keep an eye on the situation.
An article in the New York Times quotes a doctor at Basra General Hospital as saying: "All the sheikhs in Basra were friends with Saddam ... All the time, Saddam gave money to them, and they watched as he would cut someone's ear who did not join the military, or cut off someone's tongue who spoke out against the military."
The doctor added that he did not know which sheikh the British had in mind, but said that it didn't really matter. "All the sheikhs and tribal leaders are bad," he said.
Fighting broke out in Baghdad again this morning. Some of it centred on a mosque, where Saddam was rumoured to be hiding. Loud blasts were also reported from the city's outskirts, although their cause was not known. In the north, B-52 bombers were reportedly pounding an Iraqi army division near Kirkuk.
The US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, again threatened to escalate the Middle East conflict last night when he accused Iraq's neighbour, Syria, of helping senior members of the Baghdad regime to escape. The US was getting "scraps of evidence" to this effect, Mr Rumsfeld added.
He said there was also evidence that Syrians (referred to by the Pentagon as "jihadists") were moving into Iraq with approval from the Syrian government.
Following 24 hours of victory celebrations in Baghdad, there are fears today that the war, far from ending, could simply be moving into a far more intractable low-intensity phase in which bunker-busting bombs and other hi-tech weapons are of little use.
Yesterday, a particularly bad sign was the killing, in Iraq's holiest Shia mosque, of Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a US-backed cleric who had been living in exile in London until last week. It is unclear whether his death was the work of Saddam Hussein loyalists or a rival Shia group but, either way, the implications are alarming.
Mr al-Khoei was the son of Ayatollah Sayed al-Qasim al-Khoei, the leader of much of the Shia world until 1992 when he died, under house arrest, in Najaf.
The importance of his murder may be difficult to appreciate in countries in which religious leaders carry little political weight, but the closest British parallel is probably with Thomas Becket, the Archishop of Canterbury who, 833 years ago, was assassinated for supporting the authority of the Pope over King Henry II.
There was also another suicide bombing last night, when a man wearing an explosives-packed vest attacked a US checkpoint in Saddam City, the Shia suburb of Baghdad. Conflicting reports of casualties ranged from four US marines wounded to several dead.
Overnight, Iraqi gunmen, apparently from Shia slums in eastern Baghdad, fought a fierce hour-long battle with Fedayeen paramilitaries loyal to Saddam, according to US military sources and a Reuters news agency report.
So far, there has been no serious effort to stop the looting in Baghdad. US officials expect it to fizzle out naturally when there is nothing left to loot, although reports that Iraqis have even been stripping electrical wiring from buildings suggest that it may continue for some time.
If the experience in Basra is anything to judge by, this spontaneous crimewave could be followed by a more organised phase as armed gangs move in. Before the war, US and British planners had hoped that enough of Iraq's administration and security forces would be left intact to keep the country running but, in key places, they have either been destroyed or gone underground.
This should be less of a problem in the north, where the Kurds have been governing themselves for years, and are well organised. Elsewhere, the situation in smaller Iraqi towns which have not been touched by the war is largely unknown, and may be salvageable.
However, in areas such as Baghdad, in which all government has evaporated, there are now three basic choices:
1. Restoration of Ba'athists from the middle and lower ranks, assuming that they can be found and are willing to serve. This carries the risk of reinstating old patterns of misrule and corruption.
2. The development of local fiefdoms based around tribal or religious figures who are capable of maintaining order, but may turn out to be no less tyrannical than the previous regime.
3. Rebuilding the system from scratch, which would take months of recruitment and training.
All these factors point to the need for a prolonged US and British presence, which opponents will characterise as "occupation", as the Syrian government did yesterday.
Attacks by mujahideen, and possibly underground Ba'athists, will seek to push the US and British towards repressive measures in order to justify the term "occupation" and encourage others to join the struggle against it.
The model here is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 80s, and the resistance to it. This, in the eyes of Islamists, not only led to the creation of al-Qaida, but also brought about the collapse of a superpower. The strategy is clear, although it's much too early to judge whether it has any chance of succeeding in Iraq.
George Bush and Tony Blair both gave speeches (dubbed into Arabic) on the new Towards Freedom TV station yesterday although, with no electricity in most of Baghdad, it is doubtful whether many people could have watched it.
Mr Blair promised to see the war through to the end. Mr Bush said that the US would respect Iraq's "great religious traditions, whose principles of equality and compassion are essential to Iraq's future".
In northern Iraq early today, US and Kurdish forces reportedly captured Mosul, Iraq's third city, without a fight. Kurdish paramilitaries have promised to hand over the important oil city of Kirkuk to US troops later today.
Kirkuk, the traditional capital of the Kurds, was taken by a mixture of Kurdish guerrillas and US special forces yesterday, but neighbouring Turkey, fearful of increased Kurdish power, has been insisting that the Kurds must not be allowed to keep it.
There is growing debate on the internet about the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad, and the extent to which it was stage-managed for the TV cameras.
Numerous Guardian readers have pointed out an aerial photograph of the scene, showing how small the crowd was. However, it is not known at what point the photograph was taken.
The picture is broadly consistent with remarks about the size of the crowd made by a BBC reporter who was on the spot at the time.
There are claims that the US flag draped over the statue's head was one that had been flying over the Pentagon at the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks, although this may just be a rumour.
The Iraqi flag produced after the stars and stripes appears to have been carefully selected. It was not the current flag, but the pre-1991 design. Shortly before the 1991 Gulf war, Saddam Hussein had the words Allahu Akbar (God is greatest) inserted between the stars, and these were missing from the flag used on Wednesday.
Discussion of this "defining moment" looks set to continue, and any further information will be welcome.
On one of the bleakest days since the invasion began, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld yesterday shrugged off turmoil and looting in Iraq as signs of the people's freedom.
"It's untidy, and freedom's untidy," he said, jabbing his hand in the air. "Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things."
Mr Rumsfeld insisted that words such as anarchy and lawlessness were unrepresentative of the situation in Iraq and "absolutely" ill-chosen.
"I picked up a newspaper today and I couldn't believe it," he said. "I read eight headlines that talked about chaos, violence, unrest. And it just was Henny Penny - 'The sky is falling'. I've never seen anything like it! And here is a country that's being liberated, here are people who are going from being repressed and held under the thumb of a vicious dictator, and they're free. And all this newspaper could do, with eight or 10 headlines, they showed a man bleeding, a civilian, who they claimed we had shot - one thing after another. It's just unbelievable ..."
In an extraordinary performance reminiscent of the Iraqi information minister who assured the world that all was well even as battles raged visibly around him, Mr Rumsfeld quipped:
"The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over, and over, and over, and it's the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it 20 times, and you think, 'My goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?' "
In what appeared to be a concerted effort to damp down media coverage of the chaos, the British government simultaneously laid into the BBC and its defence correspondent, Andrew Gilligan, accusing them of "trying to make the news" rather than reporting it.
A spokesman for prime minister Tony Blair claimed that "in the main the anarchy and disorder is being directed against symbols of the regime". Mr Gilligan hit back: "The reality is half the shopping district [in Baghdad] is now being looted. Downing Street may be saying it's only regime targets that are being attacked. I'm afraid it isn't."
In the absence of any authority, residents of Baghdad have been erecting barricades to keep out marauders and there is some evidence of shooting, either between looters and citizens who are trying to protect their own property, or between rival gangs of looters.
Hospitals and laboratories have been ransacked, with thieves often seizing vital equipment - heart monitors, incubators and microscopes - which is of no obvious use to them. A report today says only one hospital in the city still has a functioning operating theatre.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has reminded the US and Britain of their legal obligation under the Geneva Convention to protect civilians and essential services such as hospitals.
The US yesterday appealed for Baghdad's police - as well as fire and ambulance services - to resume work. It is doubtful that many will do so at present: the public is unlikely to welcome a return of the old regime's crime prevention apparatus, and the police themselves may be unwilling to put their lives at risk to help out the Americans.
In a move that further undermines the United Nations' role in Iraq, the US has secretly and unilaterally resumed weapons inspections, according to a report in the Guardian today.
This will also annoy the British government, which still officially supports the UN's Unmovic team.
The American inspection team, nicknamed "USmovic", which was set up in Kuwait a week before the war began, has already started work. It includes inspectors recruited from the previous Unscom team and is led by Charles Duelfer, former deputy head of Unscom.
The US has a pressing need to find evidence of chemical or biological weapons in Iraq, since this was the pretext for the invasion in the first place. But the American-controlled inspection team has no international recognition and will also have to struggle to establish its credibility. The work of Unscom during the 1990s was partly discredited by allegations of espionage which were later, to some extent, admitted. Whatever "USmovic" finds, it is liable to be accused of planting evidence, even if that is not actually the case.
In northern Iraq, where the key cities of Mosul and Kirkuk were "liberated" by Kurdish forces with American support, the "liberation" of any available property has also begun.
Turkey is particularly worried about Kirkuk and has troops on the border ready to invade if Kurdish forces do withdraw from the city. Turkey's fear is that possession of Kirkuk and the surrounding oilfields would make a Kurdish state in the region economically viable. This could jeopardise the territorial integrity of Turkey, where there is a substantial Kurdish population.
This morning there are reports of some Kurdish forces leaving Kirkuk, but they are said to be holding back until more US troops arrive to take over from them and maintain order.
This is only part of the picture, however. At the same time, large numbers of armed Kurdish civilians have been reported entering the city. They are said to be former residents of Kirkuk who were displaced by Saddam Hussein's policy of Arabisation (ethnic "cleansing"). In the slightly longer term, these returnees are likely to strengthen Kurdish claims to possession of the city.
In southern Iraq, it was reported yesterday that British forces shot dead five alleged bank robbers in Basra. The robbers are said to have fired first.
There is also some embarrassment over Sheikh Muzahim Tamimi, the tribal leader appointed by Britain to take charge of Basra province. It has emerged that he is a former brigadier-general in Saddam Hussein's army and was once a member of the Ba'ath party. Several hundred protesters threw stones at his house earlier this week.
One theory circulating in London is that the sheikh was appointed accidentally because British intelligence confused him with his anti-Saddam brother (who turns out to have been shot dead by the secret police in 1994).
An Iraqi general who was in charge of liaison with United Nations weapons inspectors before the war gave himself up to American forces in Baghdad yesterday after discovering that he was on a list of the 55 "most wanted" officials.
General Amer Hammoudi al-Saadi, who has a German wife, was accompanied by a German television crew whom he had invited to film the surrender, apparently to ensure his safety.
US secretary of state Colin Powell singled out General Saadi for criticism in his speech to the UN security council last February.
"It was General Saadi who last [autumn] publicly pledged that Iraq was prepared to cooperate unconditionally with inspectors," Mr Powell said. "Quite the contrary, Saadi's job is not to cooperate; it is to deceive, not to disarm, but to undermine the inspectors; not to support them, but to frustrate them and to make sure they learn nothing."
In contrast, the chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, described General Saadi as "extremely knowledgeable and businesslike", adding that unlike the Iraqi deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, he did not constantly inject politics in discussions about the inspections. However, Mr Blix also said General Saadi's claim that Iraq destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons in the summer of 1991 "had no credibility".
General Saadi, a chemist who was trained in Britain and Germany, worked on Iraq’s chemical weapons programme in the 1980s and 1990s.
Whether he will now lead the US to the elusive "smoking gun" remains to be seen. Yesterday he told the German TV station, ZDF, that he had been honest in his dealings with weapons inspectors and felt in "no way guilty". He continued to insist that Iraq did not possess chemical or biological weapons.
Amid scenes of vigilantes beating up suspected looters and threatening them with guns, Iraqi demonstrators yesterday vented their wrath at the Sheraton hotel in Baghdad where the US Marines now have their headquarters. "Where is the law?" one of them complained. "This is democracy in Baghdad?"
Eyewitnesses say American troops have been standing aside as looters go about their plundering and in some cases have even waved booty-laden cars through checkpoints.
Three Malaysian journalists were ambushed and kidnapped by unidentified gunmen shortly after leaving the Sheraton hotel yesterday. An Iraqi interpreter accompanying them was shot dead. They were among a group of 28 journalists sent to Baghdad last week at the expense of the Malaysian government which had complained of biased reporting by western news media in Iraq.
Efforts to reinstate Saddam Hussein’s police force have so far met with limited success. About 80 officers have reported for duty and last night a token police car with three officers inside was said to be patrolling the city.
This morning the US began its first air patrols over Baghdad in an effort to improve security.
The state department last week awarded a multi-million dollar contract for private police work in Iraq to DynCorp, a security firm which has donated more than £100,000 to the Republican party.
A report in today’s Observer says the company, which has branch offices in the British military town of Aldershot, has already begun recruiting in Britain with offers of one-year employment contracts at a salary of £51,000 plus "hazard bonuses".
The paper reveals that DynCorp was recently ordered by a British employment tribunal to pay £110,000 to a UN police officer in Bosnia who was unfairly sacked for blowing the whistle on colleagues involved in an illegal sex ring.
Expectations that the Baathists will make a bloody "last stand" in Tikrit - Saddam Hussein’s birthplace - are unlikely to be fulfilled, judging by reports this morning.
Tikrit has previously been subjected to heavy bombing and, according to the US military, Iraqi reinforcements were seen digging in around the town. But live pictures this morning from CNN correspondent Brent Sadler, who drove into the northern outskirts unopposed, showed no sign of Iraqi fighters or armour. A military base five miles from the centre was derelict, with destroyed artillery and empty tanks along the roads around Tikrit, 175 km (110 miles) north of Baghdad.
"I've not seen one single symbol of [Iraqi] authority in the last hour of transmission," Mr Sadler said.
Later, however, the CNN crew left in a hurry after coming under small arms fire - though it was unclear who was responsible for the shooting. One of the drivers suffered a head wound and a vehicle was badly damaged.
In a further sign of the Kurds’ assertiveness, Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas also came within two miles of Tikrit last night before pulling back. Again, there was little sign of resistance apart from minor skirmishes.
This seems to demolish the theory that the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard have retreated to Tikrit, though it only adds to the mystery of what has happened to them.
The US yesterday continued its verbal onslaught against Syria when Colin Powell called on Iraq’s neighbour to detain any Iraqi officials seeking refuge. President Bush had earlier said the Syrian authorities should "turn them over to the proper folks".
Tension was exacerbated yesterday when the US military said a man who shot dead a Marine outside a hospital in Baghdad was a Syrian national. In the early stages of the war a number of Arab volunteers crossed into Iraq from Syria.
US forces in Iraq have now sealed off the roads leading to and from Syria.
The Syrian foreign minister, Farouq al-Sharaa, yesterday described the American accusations as baseless and challenged Washington to provide evidence. The French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, on a visit to Damascus, called for an end to the war of words. "Now is the time for a display of responsibility, not polemics," he said.
Syrian television reported that President Bashar al-Asad received a phone call on Friday evening from the British prime minister, Tony Blair. It gave no details beyond saying they "discussed developments in Iraq and their repercussions".
The British foreign office confirmed last week that at present Syria has no legal obligation to hand over any Iraqi fugitives, since none have yet been formally indicted or charged with crimes.
American tanks and troops entered the main square of Tikrit early this morning. As Tikrit is Saddam Hussein's birthplace there were predictions that his supporters would make a defiant last stand there - though resistance so far has been less than expected.
Bombing of the town continued yesterday and the US appears to have rejected an offer by a local tribal chief, Yussuf abd al-Aziz al-Nassari, to negotiate a peaceful surrender. According to Agence France Presse, Mr Nassari asked to be allowed 48 hours to persuade the remaining Iraqi forces to lay down their arms.
Tikrit is the last major population centre to be wrested from Baathist control. There are still numerous smaller towns and villages to be dealt with, but the capture of Tikrit will essentially mark the end of the "liberation" phase of the war. Iraqis are now free - or, as US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it last week, "free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things".
In Baghdad, armed vigilante groups are patrolling some of the streets and all but a handful of shops remain shuttered. Electricity supplies have still not been restored. Several hundred Iraqi officials have reportedly volunteered for work, though this has made little impact so far.
Attention at the weekend focused on the destruction of the city's museum. US forces had carefully avoided bombing it but then stood by as looters plundered its treasures or, in many cases, simply smashed them.
In the northern city of Kirkuk, tensions are rising between Arabs and returning Kurdish refugees who were driven out under Saddam Hussein's "Arabisation" policy. A BBC correspondent in Kirkuk says returning Kurds have threatened with eviction the Arab families who now live there. In the south, Basra is still without safe drinking water and doctors have warned of a possible epidemic. Provision of humanitarian aid is being hampered by the lack of security.
Confusion reigns in Najaf, where an armed mob reportedly surrounded the home of Ayatollah Mirza Ali Sistani, a pro-western Shia cleric, and gave him 48 hours to leave the country. A statement issued by the ayatollah said the "lives of the great religious authorities in Najaf are threatened", and added that the US-led forces "bear the responsibility" to protect them. Last Thursday, another cleric who had just returned from exile in Britain was hacked to death in the holiest mosque in Najaf.
For the moment, all these intractable and possibly chronic problems heavily outweigh successes such as the return of seven missing Americans who were found alive and well on a road north of Baghdad yesterday, and the capture near Mosul of Saddam's half-brother, Watban al-Tikriti (number 51 on the "wanted" list).
A meeting of prominent Iraqis is due to take place in Nassiriya tomorrow under US auspices. This appears to be the Americans' response to an attempt by Ahmad Chalabi, the controversial leader of the Iraqi National Congress, to establish a power base by convening his own meeting in the town. The US objected to Mr Chalabi's meeting, describing it as his "coronation". Mr Chalabi yesterday dismissed the Americans' meeting, saying "no decisions will be taken" at it, and indicated that he will not be attending.
The Guardian today has details of the banking scandal in Jordan that led to Mr Chalabi being sentenced in his absence to 22 years' jail on 31 charges of embezzlement, theft, misuse of depositor funds and currency speculation.
The US stepped up its verbal attacks on Syria yesterday. President George Bush raised the issue of weapons of mass destruction: "I think we believe there are chemical weapons in Syria," he said. Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld repeated claims that Syria is giving refuge to senior Iraqi officials. The US military has also drawn attention to the presence of fighters in Iraq who are said to have Syrian nationality (it is an established fact that Arab volunteers from various countries did enter Iraq from Syria in the early stages of the war).
Syria has dismissed the claims about harbouring members of Saddam's regime, though in any case it would have no legal obligation to hand them over since none have yet been formally accused of crimes. Little is known publicly about the current state of any chemical weapons programmes in Syria, though some information - possibly outdated - can be found on the website of the Federation of American Scientists. Over the weekend, the Syrian deputy ambassador in Washington, Imad Moustapha, accused the US of "a campaign of misinformation and disinformation about Syria". On weapons of mass destruction, he told NBC News: "We will not only accept the most rigid inspection regime, we will welcome it heartily."
Syria was not originally included with Iraq, Iran and North Korea in President Bush's "Axis of Evil". Many observers believe this is not a build up to military action but an attempt to make the Syrian government change its policies or face destabilisation. But the current focus on Syria does fit the blueprint for reshaping Israel's "strategic environment" that was proposed by the "Clean Break" document. Richard Perle, a Pentagon adviser and one of the leading proponents of war with Iraq, was the main author of the document, which set out advice for the incoming Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu.
A key passage said: "Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening,containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq - an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right - as a means of foiling Syria's regional ambitions."