U.S. Forces Within 35 Miles of Baghdad
By: Associated Press
Closing to within 35 miles of Baghdad, U.S. forces seized a bridge over the Tigris River and swept past battered Republican Guard units Wednesday. One of the key Guard divisions, defending the city of Kut, "has been destroyed," a U.S. general said.
Farther south, U.S. commanders said Iraqi soldiers were shooting from inside a revered mosque in Najaf. American soldiers withheld return fire.
Soldiers on the front lines and relatives 6,000 miles away in West Virginia rejoiced over the bold, middle-of-the-night rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch from captivity at an Iraqi hospital that was housing a military command post. The commandos who freed her also retrieved 11 bodies, some of them are believed to be American soldiers.
Army's 3rd Infantry Division and the First Marine Expeditionary Force launched a two-pronged attack toward Baghdad, and both reported breakthroughs as units entered the so-called "red zone" within range of the guns and missiles defending the capital. U.S. officials say Iraqi resistance will be the most tenacious in this zone and have warned of the possible use of chemical weapons.
In an attack launched at midnight, 3rd Infantry units surged past the strategic city of Karbala, targeting an estimated 2,000 paramilitary fighters. Karbala, which sits on the main approach to Baghdad from the southwest, was encircled and hit by night-long bombardment from U.S. artillery and warplanes.
To the east, Marines moved to within 35 miles from Baghdad after capturing an important bridge over the Tigris River near Kut. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said the Baghdad Division, defending Kut, was destroyed. An Iraqi military statement read on Iraqi satellite television denied that the division was destroyed, saying it remained ready to fight.
One of the Marine units — 1st Battalion, 5th Marines — battled Iraqi artillery and mortars for control of a bridge over the Saddam Canal near the Tigris River late Tuesday, killing an estimated 100 Iraqis dug into trenches and bunkers.
The shooting started only after it appeared the Marines would cross the bridge uncontested — a belief shattered by mortars fired as the forces approached the bridge.
The Marines then resumed their advance Wednesday, passing an abandoned military complex with high-rise barracks while bombs thudded in the distance near Baghdad.
For days prior to the offensive, both the Baghdad Division and the Republican Guard's Medina Division still defending Karbala had been pounded by airstrikes and artillery barrages. U.S. officials said the bombardment reduced the strength of both divisions by more than 50 percent.
"They're in serious trouble, and they remain in contact now with the most powerful force on Earth," Brooks said of remaining Republican Guard units.
The commander of British forces in Iraq, Air Marshal Brian Burridge, confirmed that the latest assaults by his U.S. allies marked the start of a momentous phase.
"This is certainly a decisive engagement in which we are now just beginning with the Republican Guard," he said. "The point I would make, though, is that decisive phases often take time. I wouldn't want to give you the impression that within a day or two this is going to be finished."
In Najaf, about 50 miles south of Karbala, the Central Command said U.S. forces were being fired on from the Ali Mosque, one of the most important Shiite Muslim sites. U.S. commanders say they have been trying to minimize damage to religious sites to avoid angering Muslims in Iraq and abroad.
Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf contended that American warplanes were flying close to some of the holiest Muslim sites, causing vibrations which could damage the structures. He described as "illusions" the U.S. reports of advances near Baghdad.
The International Red Cross, meanwhile, said some its staff members saw the bodies of dozens of people — including women and children — at a town south of Baghdad where Iraqi officials claim U.S. helicopters attacked a residential neighborhood. At least 280 injured were being treated at a hospital in Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad, the Red Cross said.
Iraqi officials said Tuesday that U.S. Apache helicopters attacked a neighborhood in Hillah, killing 33 people and injuring more than 300. The U.S. Central Command said it was investigating the claim.
Iraqi authorities have blamed American bombardment for the deaths of dozens of civilians in two separate marketplace explosions last week in Baghdad. Brooks, during a briefing at Central Command, said American investigators have now determined that coalition forces were not responsible for the first of those explosions; he did not comment on the second.
Baghdad again came under intense bombardment Wednesday, with telephone exchanges among the targets hit, and again the Iraqi government responded defiantly. Iraqi satellite television broadcast a statement attributed to Saddam Hussein declaring that "victory is at hand."
Saddam did not appear in person. U.S. officials say they are not sure whether is he alive and well, wounded from an air strike on one of his bunkers, or dead.
In addition to the reported successes on the front lines, U.S. soldiers were elated by news that Lynch — a prisoner of war from nine days — had been rescued by special forces from an Iraqi hospital in Nasiriyah where she was being treated for injuries.
Brooks said the U.S. commandos had to shoot their way in and out of the hospital, but suffered no casualties. "Some brave souls put their lives on the line to carry this out," he said.
Video taken with night-vision lenses showed Lynch to be alert as she lay on a stretcher; a still photograph showed a folded American flag resting on her as she smiled. She was scheduled to arrive in Germany later Wednesday for treatment of her injuries, which were not disclosed.
"I thought at first it was an April Fool's joke," said Lynch's father, Greg Lynch Sr., of Palestine, W.Va. "I thought this was a cruel joke. I can put up with most things, but not that. They assured me, no, it's not a joke.
His 19-year-old daughter had been missing with 11 other U.S. soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company. They were ambushed near Nasiriyah after making a wrong turn during early fighting in the invasion of Iraq. Five other members of her unit were later shown on Iraqi TV answering questions from their captors.
U.S. officials said the rescue team — comprised of Army Rangers, Navy SEALS, Air Force pilots and U.S. Marines — retrieved 11 bodies from in and around the Iraqi hospital. Forensics experts were summoned to try to identify the bodies.
Several hours after the rescue, U.S. Marines — who had been fighting in the area at the time of the raid — seized the Nasiriyah hospital. Civilian patients and medical staff emerged from the building with their hands up; most were allowed to leave or to return into the building for treatment.