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WAR WITH IRAQ / ADVANCE ON THE CAPITAL

U.S. Invades 'Heart of Baghdad'

Army and Marine Columns Meeting Little Resistance in Rapid Advance

April 05, 2003|Tony Perry and Geoffrey Mohan | Times Staff Writers

WITH U.S. FORCES IN BAGHDAD — U.S. tanks rolled into Baghdad today, invading the Iraqi capital as the war to remove Saddam Hussein from power appeared to enter a decisive phase.

"Coalition forces have penetrated into the heart of Baghdad," U.S. Central Command spokesman Capt. Frank Thorp said in Doha, Qatar. "They are continuing to move and have no intention of withdrawing."

It was the first penetration into the capital by regular U.S. troops, and it followed another night of heavy aerial bombardment, but it remained unclear when -- or whether -- the American push would take complete control of the city of 5 million.

With remarkable speed, "substantial" numbers of troops were inside the city by midday today, U.S. military officials said. At least four Americans were reported wounded.

Moving in from the south, elements of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division met sporadic fire from Iraqi fighters but also passed small clusters of waving men and children, as well as Republican Guard tanks in flames.

Elements of the 1st Marine Division rolled in from the east, rumbling over a bridge in the vicinity of the Rashid military airport. Thousands of other Marines were following them into the city.

Artillery boomed and Cobra helicopters roared overhead in what was believed to be a mopping-up mission by the Marines against remaining forces of the Republican Guard.

In a separate operation south of Baghdad, the headquarters of the Republican Guard's lead Medina Division was captured in the town of Suwayrah. The 3rd Infantry's 2nd Brigade destroyed tanks, artillery pieces and empty bunkers with little return fire.

"How much more do we need to do?" Capt. Steve Berry said from a point overlooking the desolate base. "These guys aren't fighting."

The fight seemed so easy that soldiers were popping up from their tank hatches and firing at portraits of Hussein hanging from walls and gates.

The move into Baghdad came hours after a man who appeared to be the Iraqi president was shown twice on television Friday, rallying his people for the climactic fight ahead. The videotapes of Hussein were evidently made after the beginning of the U.S.-led war on his regime and seemed designed to tell Iraqis and the Arab world that he had survived the fierce U.S. and British bombardment aimed at removing him from power.

Senior U.S. officials said they were analyzing the tapes to see whether they showed the real Hussein but insisted that it wouldn't matter if they did.

"In the bigger scheme of things, it really doesn't matter," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said, "because whether it is him or whether it isn't him, the regime's days are numbered and are coming to an end."

As the U.S.-British alliance said it had effectively destroyed two of the six divisions of Hussein's Republican Guard and inflicted substantial damage on the remaining four divisions, Iraqi authorities warned they would strike back by unspecified "nonconventional" means, but said that would not include weapons of mass destruction.

A suicide bomber detonated a car at a checkpoint staffed by U.S. Special Forces near the strategic Hadithah dam, 120 miles northwest of Baghdad, killing three soldiers and two occupants of the car, including at least one woman. Closer to Baghdad, U.S. Marines fired on a truck that refused to stop at a checkpoint, killing as many as seven civilians, including three children, according to defense officials and reporters traveling with the troops.

Early today, the Pentagon identified eight soldiers whose bodies were discovered during the rescue of an American POW in Iraq this week, saying they were part of an Army maintenance unit ambushed near Nasiriyah on March 23.

U.S. commandos found the bodies, along with the remains of another as-yet-unidentified service member, when they rescued Pfc. Jessica Lynch from a hospital in Nasiriyah.

On Friday, U.S. forces solidified their hold on Baghdad's airport. Just a day earlier, Information Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf had insisted that Americans were nowhere near Baghdad or Saddam International Airport. By Friday, when the Americans unilaterally renamed it Baghdad International Airport, Sahaf insisted that the invading troops were trapped there and would never emerge alive.

What seemed clear was that both sides were shifting into position for the pivotal phase of the war.

U.S. forces were coming at Baghdad from three directions, all generally to the south of the capital. U.S. officials said they were not sure what Iraqi troops were doing, but some analysts said they believe at least some were retreating into Baghdad to make a last stand there.

Pentagon officials had said Thursday that the allies might try to avoid a major urban battle by relying instead on a policy that focuses on leadership targets and that seeks to isolate the capital, rendering it "irrelevant."

Still, Victoria Clarke, a Pentagon spokeswoman, warned that "the very toughest fighting could lie ahead."

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