U.S. commandos are taking up positions inside Baghdad

Saturday, April 5, 2003

U.S. tanks and armored vehicles rolled into the Iraqi capital early this morning for the first time, making reconnaissance probes as Marines and infantry on the city edges fought to impose a "choke hold" on President Saddam Hussein's seat of power.

With U.S. commandos already inside Baghdad, columns of Army and Marine armored vehicles advanced from the south, beginning to encircle the capital of 5 million people. They met occasionally stiff resistance, battling Iraqi tanks as well as army, Republican Guard and Fedayeen forces.

"They're pretty much cut off in all directions," Air Force Cpt. Dani Burrows said Saturday morning. "Pretty much what you've got here is a choke hold around Baghdad."

American forces closed in as Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf threatened "very new, creative" martyrdom operations -- often a euphemism for suicide attacks -- but denied weapons of mass destruction would be involved.

Iraqi military preparations could be seen on the last three miles of the road heading south out of Baghdad, where thousands of army troops and militiamen dug more trenches and foxholes.

Determined but not frantic, dozens relaxed in the shade against a wall or under a tree next to their weapons, taking shelter from an exceptionally hot April day.

But by nightfall, Baghdad had the appearance of a city under siege -- empty streets, darkness from a power outage that began Thursday evening, and isolation from the outside world after allied bombings destroyed the city's telephone exchanges.

Saddam appeared on television -- seemingly debunking American-fed speculation that he was dead. On the advance of U.S. troops, he urged his country to "strike them forcefully."

But the Marines reported the surrender of 2,500 members of the Republican Guard, American and British warplanes bombed targets virtually at will for the 16th straight day, and the administration projected increasing confidence.

"We are almost in control of their country, and we'll be in complete control soon," Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Washington.

More than two weeks into Operation Iraqi Freedom, there were fresh setbacks for the Americans, and no shortage of scares.

A car bomb killed three uniformed personnel at a checkpoint when a pregnant woman jumped from the vehicle screaming for help. Iraqi television reported two women had carried out a suicide attack, apparently the same incident.

Two pilots were killed when a Marine Cobra attack helicopter crashed in central Iraq, the military. The cause of the crash was not immediately known.

A defense official also said Marines fired on a truck that refused to stop at a checkpoint south of Baghdad, killing an undisclosed number of civilians. ABC said seven died, three children among them, adding they were in a vehicle behind a military truck that tried to crash through the roadblock.

Outside Baghdad

There was continued fighting in several areas of the country.

In the north, air attacks cleared the way for Kurdish forces to seize a key bridge at Khazer, near the major city of Mosul.

In the southern of city of Basra, where Iraqis have held out for days, Saddam's forces shelled British troops.

But increasingly, the focus was on the combat around Baghdad.

Though U.S. troops are not immediately on the northern edges of Baghdad, Burrows said Iraqi lines of flight were cut off in that direction. No substantial American force is known to be on the city's northern or eastern outskirts.

Facing stiff resistance, Marines were moving slowly earlier this morning but reached to well within 10 miles of Baghdad's edge along Highway 7, which parallels the Tigris River into the city's southeastern neighborhoods. Though the night, the grinding sound of shells sailed over the Marines' heads as howitzers behind them pounded Iraqi positions in their path.

The Iraqis were fighting mostly with small weapons -- Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades -- suggesting they were mostly Saddam's Fedayeen fighters, rather than regular army or Republican Guards. Marines said they were also coming across many non-Iraqi fighters -- mostly Jordanians and Egyptians.

In Washington, a senior administration official said the Baghdad airport was under U.S. control but not considered secured, in part because it was within range of artillery inside the capital city.

Inside the facility after Thursday's all-night tank and infantry battle, American troops swiftly renamed it. Saddam International Airport no longer, it is now Baghdad International Airport.

American troops moved through its underground tunnels to clear them of danger.

One brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, helicopters included, arrived to use the grounds as a base of operation close to the capital. The 101st is highly trained in urban warfare.

"We are fighting in urban terrain now, and to be effective, in this terrain you need light infantry forces. This is their forte," said Col. John Peabody of the 3rd Infantry Division.

A few miles to the east, in a city largely blacked out since Thursday, Iraqis fled northward, away from advancing Americans. Vehicles of every description loaded with men, women, children and their possessions clogged exit routes in backups that stretched for miles.

As Marines advanced from the southeast, crowds sometimes lined the roads, and some Iraqis voiced their hopes in a blend of English and Arabic.

"Thank you. Thank you. Baghdad, Baghdad. Yallah. Yallah," they said. "Yallah" translates as "go."

Army troops advanced on Baghdad, as well, and tank units intercepted a battalion of Republican Guard armor about 25 miles outside the city. The Americans called in air cover, and reported the destruction of 10 Iraqi tanks.

Flag-draped coffins carrying Americans killed in action were received at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, along with nine sets of remains found buried outside an Iraqi hospital where a U.S. prisoner of war was rescued earlier in the week. Military officials said the unidentified remains were believed to be those of U.S. soldiers.

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