U.S. officials suggest major combat all but over in Iraq

U.S. Army soldiers spent the night in one of Saddam Hussein’s main presidential palaces and 10,000 U.S. Marines surged into the capital’s outskirts as U.S. officials suggested that major combat was all but over in Iraq.

“The hostilities phase is coming to a conclusion,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday. Another leading indicator: Gen. Tommy Franks, who commands the allied force from a base in Qatar, spent much of Monday visiting his troops in Iraq.

At the same time, experts tested chemicals that could prove that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction. U.S. officers said they found substances that preliminary tests determined were the nerve agents sarin and tabun and the blister agent lewisite.

If additional testing confirms the presence of such chemical agents, the discovery at a compound near the city of Hindiyah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, would be the first proof that Iraq has been hiding banned weapons of mass destruction.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cautioned that initial reports and tests are often inaccurate.

“Almost all first reports we get turn out to be wrong,” he said.

Some military officers at the scene said the material could be the residue of pesticides; others said they believed nerve agents are present. About a dozen soldiers and two journalists, including Knight Ridder reporter Tom Lasseter, said the substances made them ill or caused blotches on their skin. More sophisticated tests will be conducted in coming days, Rumsfeld said.

In another major development, U.S. and British officials announced that allied bombs almost certainly had killed Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali.” A member of Saddam’s inner circle, al-Majid ordered a poison gas attack that killed thousands of Kurds in 1988.

“We believe that the reign of terror of Chemical Ali has come to an end,” Rumsfeld said. “To Iraqis who have suffered at his hand … he will never again terrorize you or your families.”

Other officials said they would await further examination of the human remains found in a building in Basra where al-Majid and other Iraqi leaders were said to be meeting.

“Until they do the DNA I am not going to speculate,” said Col. Larry Brown, operations chief for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. “This guy has been like Freddy Krueger. We’ve killed him four or five times.”

In Basra, British troops consolidated their control of the southern city of 1.3 million people, but hundreds of residents indulged in widespread looting, breaking into the central bank and retail shops and setting fire to a hotel. Further north, 10,000 U.S. Marines streamed across makeshift bridges and floated aboard amphibious vehicles, crossing a tributary of the Tigris River and rushing into the outskirts of Baghdad near the Rashid military airfield. Army forces already held important strategic and symbolic positions in the heart of the city.

And so, early Tuesday, fending off sporadic enemy fire, large numbers of allied forces occupied key precincts of both Baghdad and Basra, Iraq’s two largest cities. Both cities were virtually encircled by U.S. and British troops.

“What we’re trying to do is surround the city,” Brown said of Baghdad. “Keep the rats in and the reinforcements out.”