Troops pushing toward capital yet to be slowed

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 3, 2003

U.S. troops surged forward Thursday into the outskirts of Baghdad, and a special forces unit raided one of Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces. American officials said Iraqi forces appeared on the verge of collapse.

Lead units of the multi-pronged U.S. assault force were about four miles from the edge of Baghdad. Army troops closed in from the southwest after crossing the Euphrates River; Marine units advanced from the southeast in a long column along the Tigris River.

''We are getting closer and closer,'' said Navy Capt. Frank Thorp, a Central Command spokesman. ''We will be in Baghdad within a matter of hours from when we decide to go.''

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Paving the way, special forces infiltrated some Iraqi command posts in the Baghdad area and secured strategic dams and bridges. Another group of commandos raided the Thar Thar presidential palace, in a resort area about 55 miles from Baghdad.

Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, in a briefing at Central Command, said the raiders landed by helicopter in the palace compound after suppressing anti-aircraft fire. The commandos found no leaders in residence, but came away with documents that will be reviewed by intelligence officers, Brooks said.

''We don't think that the fighting is over yet,'' Brooks said. ''There are still options that are open to the regime, including weapons of mass destruction. We take that very seriously.''

Another U.S. spokesman, Navy. Lt. Mark Kitchens, said U.S. forces are seeing ''strong and credible signs that the Iraqi forces are being overwhelmed and will soon collapse.'' However, Iraqi authorities vowed to make a stand, raising the possibility that some units had been pulled into Baghdad for urban warfare rather than risk a head-on clash outside the city.

While some Marine units advanced toward the capital, others from the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines battled building to building with Iraqi fighters in Kut, a military town on the Tigris. Three Marines were wounded.

To the west, thousands of Army vehicles were crossing the Euphrates and moving toward Baghdad after an unsuccessful attempt by Iraqi forces to defend a bridge at Musayyib. Scores of blown-up Iraqi vehicles and dozens of bodies lined the roads as the U.S. troops passed by.

U.S. defense officials said two Republican Guard divisions were badly weakened by the approaching Americans on Wednesday. U.S. forces incurred minimal losses in those battles, but a Republican Guard commander vowed that resistance would stiffen.

''God willing, we will teach the enemy lessons on the battlefield that it will not forget,'' said an officer identified by the Arab television network Al-Jazeera as commander of the Republican Guard's Baghdad Division. The officer, whose name was not given, said 17 of his men were killed in the recent combat, but denied U.S. claims that the division had been destroyed.

Two U.S. aircraft went down Wednesday near the city of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad - a Navy Hornet and an Army Black Hawk helicopter. U.S. officials said six soldiers aboard the Black Hawk were killed, while the Navy pilot was missing.

After initially reporting that both aircraft were downed by Iraqi fire, officials said Thursday the cause in each case was not yet determined.

Despite the successful push toward Baghdad, senior U.S. commanders sought to lower expectations of an imminent takeover of Saddam Hussein's capital.

The Americans may soon face a choice between continuing their advance into the city of 5 million, with the possibility of costly street fighting, or waiting for reinforcements while giving Iraqis a chance to challenge Saddam's regime themselves.

''We hope that ultimately the regime will realize how ridiculous it is to continue with this effort, (and) surrender en masse,'' Lockwood said.

U.S. commanders would be pleased if their reception in Baghdad resembled the scene Wednesday in the southern city of Najaf, where American journalists reported that thousands of Iraqis poured into the streets to welcome a Humvee column carrying an American colonel and his troops.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the Americans had managed to secure Najaf's gold-domed Ali Mosque, one of the most sacred sites for Shiite Muslims, after three days of combat. The Americans said some of their troops had been fired on by Iraqi forces inside the mosque.

Jessica Lynch, the 19-year-old Army private freed from Iraqi captivity in a commando raid, was recuperating Thursday at a military hospital in Germany. She spoke by telephone for 15 minutes with her family in Palestine, W.Va.

Randy Coleman, a military spokesman in West Virginia, said Lynch had fractures in both legs, and her family said one arm was injured. U.S. officials in Kuwait said she also had at least one gunshot wound.

Lynch, rescued Tuesday from an Iraqi hospital, shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed her maintenance company, firing until she ran out of ammunition, The Washington Post reported.

She watched several soldiers in her unit die and was stabbed when Iraqi forces closed in, The Post quoted U.S. officials as saying. Pentagon officials and family members declined comment on the report.

The commandos who freed Lynch also retrieved 11 bodies from the Iraqi hospital; U.S. officials said some were believed to be Americans.

Iraq's Information Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, told reporters Thursday that bodies were indeed American soldiers, killed on the third and fourth day of the war.

''Their government is not giving the true number of their fallen,'' al-Sahhaf said. He also said more than 30 Iraqi civilians had been killed and more than 200 injured in the past 24 hours in bombardments of Baghdad and other cities.