Coalition tanks, troops on Baghdad's doorstep
|||Graphic (opens in new window): U.S. forces close to Baghdad|
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SOUTH OF BAGHDAD, Iraq U.S. Marines and infantry battered through Iraqi forces south of Baghdad today and were near the international airport, 12 miles from the city center.
|U.S. Army's 11th Engineer Battalion, Alpha Company and Bravo Company, with the 3rd Battalion, 69th Regiment Armor Task Force, check for explosives on a bridge over the Euphrates River.
Gannett News Service
U.S. forces "are beginning to see strong and credible signs that the Iraqi forces are being overwhelmed and will soon collapse," said Navy Lt. Mark Kitchens, a U.S. Central Command spokesman.
Central Command said the feared last stand by Republican Guard troops at the southern gates to the city did not materialize.
"And having seen the opposition we've seen so far, we will be able to get to the outskirts of Baghdad within hours," said another spokesman, Capt. Frank Thorp.
He said the path to Baghdad was getting clearer as more Republican Guards are defeated.
"We are getting closer and closer to Baghdad. When we decide to go into Baghdad, we will be in Baghdad within a matter of hours from when we decide to go," he said.
Marines began today's drive toward Baghdad protected by withering artillery and mortar fire. A massive convoy of Marines moved along the main road leading to the Iraqi capital.
Paving the way, special forces infiltrated some Iraqi command posts during the night, and also secured strategic bridges and dams, according to Central Command.
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|||Facts about the war|
While some Marine units had been roughly following the Tigris River, the Army was advancing along the Euphrates River.
Relentless fire from 155 mm howitzers rained on Iraqi positions near the town of Numaniyah as the Marine advance resumed. Large black plumes of smoke could be seen rising from the town and its prized Tigris River crossing, taken by American troops yesterday.
The Marines were stopping every vehicle they met along the main road. Drivers and passengers got out of taxis and cars and stood by the road with their hands in the air.
Black combat boots were discarded along the road by Iraqi fighters who have taken off their military footwear and changed into robes, hoping to avoid capture as combatants.
At a Baath Party building flying Iraqi flags, a small group of men sat clustered in a grassy area around a woman dressed in a black chador and waving a white flag of surrender.
Many groups of Iraqis sat down by the roadside, waving and smiling at the Marines to show they were not combatants.
The Pentagon said Iraqi Republican Guard reinforcements had moved out of Baghdad toward the approaching Americans. New groups of Saddam's best trained and equipped fighters were dispatched to replace guard units shattered yesterday when some U.S. forces had fought to within 20 miles of the city.
As the Marines closed on Baghdad from the southeast, the Army moved in from the southwest, meeting little resistance as they passed abandoned Iraqi trenches littered with everything from mortars and small arms to teapots and bedspreads.
"When they ran, it wasn't for lack of ammo. They've got enough," one Marine said as he examined the trenches.
The Marine column was moving along the Tigris, joined by thousands of Marines coming in from the west. Multiple convoys, including flatbeds, fuel tankers, first aid and supply vehicles, merged outside Numaniyah, creating a traffic jam at the Tigris bridge.
Saddam Hussein exhorted the Iraqi people to "fight them with your hands," according to a statement read today on Iraqi satellite television.
The statement addressed to the people of the region southeast of Baghdad was read by Information Minister Saeed al-Sahhaf.
"Fight them with your hands, God will disgrace them. God is great," the statement said.
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.
Jim Wilkinson, a Central Command spokesman, said American forces have received "reliable information" that the Iraqi regime may be planning to bomb some Shiite Muslim neighborhoods of Baghdad, then blame the U.S.-led coalition for the destruction.
A spokesman for British forces in Iraq, Group Capt. Al Lockwood, suggested the Iraqis' prospects around Baghdad were bleak. "They are in a position from which there is no escape," he said.
U.S. military officials described the Iraqi units as disjointed, chaotic and lacking cohesion as a fighting force.
Still, the Iraqis put up some resistance. An F/A-18 jet fighter and a Black Hawk helicopter were shot down, military officials said. Rescue teams searched for the jet pilot. The Pentagon said seven died on the helicopter and four were injured, but U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, said there were only six people on board, and it had no confirmation of casualties.
In a broadcast from Baghdad, the pan-Arab satellite television station Al Jazeera said a U.S. missile struck a Red Crescent maternity hospital in a residential area of the capital, killing several people and seriously wounding 25.
Central Command said it was reviewing target data for air missions at the time of the attack.
About 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, near the city of Kut, units of the 1st Marine Division crossed a key bridge yesterday over the Tigris River in a thundering assault against the Baghdad Division of the Republican Guard.
"Now we're on (Saddam's) side of the street," said Lt. Michael Belcher as troops crossed to the western side of the Tigris River.
As many as 500 Iraqi troops were killed as U.S. forces repelled a bid to take back a key bridge over the Euphrates River about 20 miles southwest of Baghdad, Agence France-Presse cited a U.S. officer as saying.
"In the attack for this bridge and the counterattacks, probably 500 died," Major John Altman, an intelligence officer with the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Infantry, told AFP.