Baghdad in soldiers' sight
In a day of advances and losses, U.S. forces fought to within sight of the Baghdad skyline 20 miles away Wednesday, seizing key bridges and shattering two divisions of the vaunted Republican Guard as they thrust north from two directions -- the Army from the southwest, Marines from the southeast.
"The dagger is clearly pointed" at the heart of Saddam Hussein's regime, said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks.
"Our guys are able to see the skyline. That's how close we've gotten," said one military official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official said the plan was to begin to form a cordon around Baghdad and press the regime to surrender.
Failing that, there was no word on when -- or whether -- forces would enter the city of 5 million.
The rapid advances brought thousands of troops within the so-called red zone -- an imaginary line on the map near the capital where Iraqi use of weapons of mass destruction is most feared. Troops in some lead Army units donned chemical protection suits, and Marine helicopter pilots were ordered to be prepared to do so.
The Army Black Hawk helicopter was downed by small-arms fire near Karbala, site of fierce fighting between the Army's 3rd Infantry Division and Iraqi troops, including Republican Guard forces. Seven soldiers were killed and four were wounded and rescued, officials said.
Increasingly, there were signs that Iraqi civilians were eager for the arrival of invading forces. Some smiled and waved as Marines rolled through Nasiriyah in tanks and other military vehicles.
There were moments of humanity, as well, in the 2-week-old war. In Nasiriyah, American snipers summoned help for an Iraqi woman in labor in a pickup truck. Navy Hospitalman 1st Class Kyle Morris delivered a healthy baby and named her "America."
"It was a pretty cool way to start the day," he said.
But there was bad news too. The U.S. Central Command, which is overseeing the war, said it was investigating reports that warplanes had bombed a Red Crescent maternity hospital in Baghdad.
Despite the gains on the battlefield, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others cautioned that some of the toughest fighting of the military campaign may lie ahead, seeking to dampen speculation that the war might end quickly.
Iraq insisted the battlefield was tilting its way, and Al-Jazeera, an Arab satellite TV station, said about 30 Yemenis arrived in the capital carrying AK-47s and shouting pro-Saddam slogans.
"Victory is ours," Saddam said in a statement issued in his name.
But that was increasingly at odds with the accounts offered by American military commanders as well as reporters covering front-line Army and Marine forces swiftly advancing on Saddam's capital.
Following days of heavy airstrikes, artillery barrages and skirmishes designed to weaken Republican Guard divisions, Army units swept toward Baghdad from the southwest, past battered Iraqi forces near Karbala. The troops moved through a gap west of the city. Special forces earlier seized control of a nearby dam, erasing fears that Iraqis would blow it up and cause a flood that could have been a disaster for the American forces.
Advancing Army forces captured a bridge over the Euphrates River at Mussayib after defusing explosives left by retreating Iraqis. There was little resistance. Coalition warplanes also dropped nearly 40 JDAM bombs on a military storage facility in Baghdad.
Southeast of Baghdad, near Kut, Marines took a key bridge as they advanced. "Now we're on his side of the street," said Lt. Michael Belcher, referring to Saddam, as troops crossed to the western side of the Tigris River.
Brooks told reporters that the Baghdad Division of the Republican Guard, which was positioned near Kut, "has been destroyed." At the Pentagon, Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said both the Baghdad Division and the Medina Division, near Karbala, were "no longer credible forces."
Four units remaining
The four remaining Republican Guard units, as well as the Special Republican Guard, have also suffered losses, officials said, but not as extensive. Baghdad is also defended by a paramilitary force estimated at 6,000 and 8,000.
One Iraqi tore off his uniform in an attempt to hide his identity. He wasn't quick enough, and was seized.
He was not alone in attempting to escape notice. Troops rolling through Numaniyah, 40 miles southeast of Baghdad, saw the road littered with discarded Iraqi military clothing.
Despite the American success on the battlefield, officials warned of difficult fighting ahead.
"We are not expecting to drive into Baghdad suddenly and seize it," McChrystal said.
While most of the day's military action was south of Baghdad, there was fresh bombing around Mosul, in the northern part of Iraq.
A 40-vehicle convoy carried food, fuel and medicine to American troops from neighboring Turkey as part of a hard-won agreement with the Turkish government.
And a contingent of U.S. troops set up at a large airstrip in nearby Irbil, a facility that has not been used for more than a decade.
Also Wednesday, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said he hoped the Saddam government collapses quickly. That was a stark turnaround from Germany's previous opposition to regime change as a goal of the U.S.-led war.