BAGHDAD — U.S. Army troops captured one of Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces, fired on another and blew up one of his statues as they rolled into the center of this isolated, faltering capital today, and American military intelligence said the collapse of the Iraqi leader's regime was only days away.
"Saddam Hussein says he owns Baghdad," said Col. David Perkins, commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division. "Wrong. We own Baghdad."
Resistance came mainly from small-arms fire as a column of tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles entered the city on Route 8 shortly after dawn, under cover from F-16 jets and A-10 Wart- hogs. A white van, apparently carrying paramilitary forces loyal to Hussein, was destroyed as it raced toward the column.
Demonstrating that allied forces could do what they wanted at the heart of Hussein's power, soldiers from the 3rd Infantry entered his New Presidential Palace, and five tanks and several Bradleys fired at the Old Palace. Columns of black smoke rose from both, and gunfire rattled through the city.
Perkins said there was "minimal" loss of life.
Despite the intensity of the fighting, Maj. Rumi Nielson-Green with the U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, cautioned against characterizing it as "the final push" in the battle for Baghdad.
Nonetheless, the raid, the allies' second in three days, came after U.S. Marines, nearly 25,000 strong, linked up with thousands of Army infantry and cut of most of the roads in and out of the city. "At this point, Baghdad is surrounded," squawked a voice of a battalion radio channel.
"And we're smack dab in the middle of it."
The latest developments gave the impression of a regime entering its death throes, tipping on the verge of collapse. Intelligence reports said a number of high-level officials from Hussein's Baath Party were trying to flee Baghdad. The reports said Hussein's ability to control the city was slipping and predicted that the fall of his government was imminent.
"Regime collapse is a matter of days, not weeks," one report concluded.
At a chaotic news conference on the roof of a hotel in central Baghdad just blocks away from U.S. forces, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf told reporters: "There is no presence of American columns in the city of Baghdad at all. They were surrounded, and they were dealt with, and their columns were smoldered.
"The American mercenaries will commit suicide at the walls of Baghdad," he shouted over the din of machine-gun fire, against a pall of smoke rising from one of the presidential palaces in the background. "I would encourage them to increase their rate of committing suicide.
"Their [armored] columns are being killed by the hundreds at the walls of Baghdad."
At one point, an interpreter translating Sahaf's words into English for Britain's Sky News television was overwhelmed by the absurdity and started laughing.
As the sun came up today, the scene around the Iraqi capital was surreal.
Marines had repaired a bridge across the Diyala River, adjacent to the Tigris River, and began rolling across all four lanes.
They worked on the second bridge and tried to put pontoons in place.
"We're in Baghdad," declared Marine Brig. Gen. John Kelly. "And we're in Baghdad to stay."
Two oil fires, apparently lighted by government defenders, burned on the west bank of the Tigris, near downtown.
On the east side of the river, cars waiting to flee lined up to get gas.
Fox-TV video showed 3rd Infantry tanks on the grounds of the sand-colored Old Presidential Palace, with large arches and a dome.
Army Capt. Chris Carter and another soldier waved a University of Georgia flag -- red and black and white emblazoned with a large letter G -- as they stood on the grounds of the palace complex.
One soldier said he planned to take a shower inside the palace, which was said to have "running water and gold faucets."
Hours earlier, a man who many at the U.S. Defense Department would like to see replace Hussein as Iraq's leader, Ahmed Chalabi, was flown from exile into the southern city of Nasiriyah on Sunday aboard an American C-130 aircraft.
Chalabi was accompanied by 500 troops designated the 1st Battalion Free Iraqi Forces. A statement issued by Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress said his soldiers would be deployed near Nasiriyah and come under the U.S. Central Command.
In Washington, U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC's "This Week" that Chalabi's troops were "Iraqi citizens who want to fight for a free Iraq, who will become basically the core of the new Iraqi army once Iraq is free."
Pace and Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, deputy director of operations at Central Command, outlined these allied plans for Baghdad: