Battle for Baghdad, air raids intensify
US forces were just 30 km from Baghdad after they launched a two-pronged ground assault aided by fierce air raids by coalition jets.india Updated: Apr 03, 2003 09:35 IST
The battle for Baghdad began in earnest on Wednesday as US forces staged a two-pronged ground assault on elite Republican Guard divisions in what officers called the "last push" towards Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's seat of power.
US forces secured a vital Tigris river bridge and sweeping past the Shi'ite holy city of Kerbala after a withering blitz on their Republican Guard foes.
In the vanguard of an advance on Baghdad from the southwest, US forces were just 30 km from the southern edge of the Iraqi capital on Wednesday, a US military source in the field said.
Meanwhile, intensive bombardment was heard in Baghdad late on Wednesday afternoon and plumes of smoke rose from several parts of the Iraqi capital, an AFP journalist reported.
Forward units of a second advance, from the southeast along the Tigris river valley, were as near as 40 km away.
"The dagger is clearly pointed at the heart of the regime and will remain pointed at it until the regime is gone," Brigadier General Vincent Brooks told a news conference at US Central Command's forward base in Qatar as forward units advanced to within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of Baghdad.
Brooks said marines had "destroyed" the Baghdad Republican Guard division after a major battle to the southeast while the US Army's 3rd Infantry Division punched its way northeast towards the capital after passing through a vital gateway to Baghdad.
"The First Marine Expeditionary Force attacked the Baghdad Division near the town of Al-Kut and has crossed the Tigris River. The Baghdad Division has been destroyed," he said.
But an Iraqi military spokesman insisted the division "has not suffered any losses and is ready to confront the enemy".
"The Baghdad division maintains its cohesion and has a morale of steel," he told AFP.
A Centcom spokesman told AFP earlier that US troops attacked the Baghdad, Medina and Nebuchadnezzar Republican Guard divisions south of the capital, while air strikes targeted the Adnan division to the north.
He said Iraqi soldiers were "voting with their feet" and fleeing the US armour as it advanced near Al-Kut, around 150 kilometres (90 miles) southeast of the Iraqi capital.
The main road from Al-Kut to Baghad had been cut off as US planes bombed targets within the city.
The 3rd Infantry met only "disorganised" resistance as they drove through the narrow desert strip between the Euphrates and a large lake east of the city, said first brigade commander Colonel Will Grimsley.
A-10 Thunderbolt planes could later be heard bombing Iraqi positions to the northeast of Karbala as the troops continued to push forward, declining to enter the Shiite holy Muslim city itself.
In the southern city of Najaf, coalition troops came under fire from the Ali mosque, a revered shrine in Shiite Islam, a US military spokesman alleged.
Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Said al-Sahhaf for his part accused the US-led coalition of trying to destroy holy Shiite shrines in Najaf and Karbala.
The Centcom official said troops from the Adnan division, based in Saddam's heartland of Tikrit to the north of Baghdad, were rushing to support its sister divisions to the south.
To the east, US Marines said they crossed the Tigris river near Kut, 110 km southeast of the capital, early on Wednesday and took control of the important Highway 6 leading to Baghdad, a sprawling city of five million that straddles the Tigris.
"This is so far the biggest fight of the war," said a US spokesman at Central Command in Qatar, as the campaign to oust President Saddam Hussein went into its 14th day. "The battles in Kerbala and Kut are the most significant battles to date."
US Marines said they seized a bridge over the Tigris west of Kut, 170 km southeast of the Iraqi capital.
With Saddam urging a holy war against the invaders, US planes pounded the southern defences of Baghdad. Heavy B-52 bombers also pummelled Iraqi forces in the north, while helicopters and fighter planes strafed Fedayeen militia active in the Shi'ite shrine city of Najaf in central Iraq.
The commander of British forces in Iraq said there should be no rush to launch an all-out assault on Baghdad that would cause unwanted destruction and civilian casualties.
"We need to proceed with great delicacy in Baghdad as we did in Basra because we don't want to cause any more damage to the place than is necessary and we certainly don't want to add to civilian casualties," Air Marshall Brian Burridge said.
He cited the tactics of British forces who have surrounded the southern city of Basra, staging a series of quick strikes into the centre to kill or capture forces loyal to Saddam.
Burridge said the decisive phase of the war had begun but that it might not end quickly. "Decisive phases often take time. I wouldn't want to give the impression that within a day or two this is going to be finished," he told BBC radio.
Word that US special forces had rescued a woman prisoner of war from a Nassiriya hospital overnight boosted the morale of US and British troops who have faced suspicion among civilians and tougher-than-expected military resistance.
Hours before the latest assaults, America's top soldier said two of the elite Republican Guard divisions guarding Baghdad had lost more than half their original combat capability.
General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said those divisions had not retreated despite punishing ground and air attacks, but added some troops had dispersed "into neighbourhoods and things like that".
The US 3rd Infantry began its assault on Kerbala shortly after midnight, backed by warplanes, Apache attack helicopters and a furious artillery barrage which lit up the night sky.
It took only three hours to oust the Medina Division of the Republican Guards from the perimeter of the city holy to Shi'ite Muslims that lies 110 km southwest of Baghdad.
"The US military had expected a much bigger fight, but they say they have now secured the city on all sides and are continuing with their advance," said Reuters reporter Luke Baker, travelling with the 3rd Infantry.
CROSSING THE TIGRIS
Further east, where US Marines crossed the Tigris, an officer told Reuters correspondent Sean Maguire: "That's the last big bridge we needed."
A US defence official said control of the bridge could allow thousands of troops to push on Baghdad. "It's key for force flow and movement," the official said.
Another Marine unit bombarded Kut, but it was not clear if they would go into the city.
American forces that raced towards Baghdad early in the war left towns in control of Iraqi paramilitaries who then staged hit-and-run attacks on their stretched supply lines.
First Published: Apr 03, 2003 09:35 IST