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Saddam Hussein's birthplace, Tikrit, appeared on the verge of falling to US forces, bringing the hard fighting in Iraq a step closer to its end. Reports said marine units were in the city and that their commanders were negotiating with local tribal chiefs for a peaceful surrender. Gen. Tommy Franks said, however, that the "military phase" of the war would not be declared over until all pockets of resistance were under control. Meanwhile, marines found seven missing US troops alive and in apparent good health on the road between Tikrit and Baghdad.

In war-related developments:

• The Russian and French presidents and the chancellor of Germany said they wanted to mend fences with the US over their opposition to the war. At a weekend summit, they insisted that they welcomed the fall of Hussein, although arguing "there can be no lasting international order based on the logic of power."

• Turkey no longer sees a need to send its troops into northern Iraq because Kurdish fighters who were the first into the oil-industry center, Kirkuk, "appear to have left," Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said.

• Syria's government called itself a "victim" of US allegations that it has been "unhelpful" and has provided military assistance to Iraq. It challenged the Bush administration to produce such evidence.

• Israeli authorities lifted the national state of alert, announcing that gas masks no longer needed to be carried and that a sealed room in each residence was no longer necessary.

The fall of Iraq's regime provides an opening for peace with the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told an interviewer, adding, "I know we will have to part with" some Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He said that prospect was "painful for every Jew and for me personally," but "I do not think we have to rule over another people." In reaction, a senior Palestinian called those remarks "public relations tactics."

The US has "noted with interest" and "expects to follow up" a shift in North Korea's position on discussing its resumed nuclear program, a State Department spokesman said. In a possible breakthrough Saturday, the communist government in Pyongyang signaled it would be willing to agree to US insistence on multilateral discussions of the issue with rival South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia. North Korea previously had demanded bilateral talks only with the US.

Opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez agreed to a national referendum after Aug. 19 to recall him from power. But Chávez insisted that the nation first needed a new elections commission to organize the vote and to schedule a date, that a new signature-gathering effort on a referendum petition was necessary, and that voter rolls would have to be overhauled to eliminate deceased people and those with "false identities." Aug. 19 is the midpoint of his controversial seven-year term.

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