SOUTH OF BAGHDAD (Reuters)–US forces smashed through elite Iraqi divisions to within 30 km (20 miles) of Baghdad on Wednesday–using fearsome air power to back the swiftest advance of the war to oust President Saddam Hussein.
US Marines seized a vital bridge over the Tigris river and then pushed along its northern bank towards the Iraqi capital–while the 3rd Infantry Division thrust northwards after encircling the Shi’ite Muslim shrine city of Kerbala.
A military source told a Reuters correspondent with the 3rd Infantry that vanguard units were just 30 km from the southern edges of the capital of some five million people–where bombs killed several motorists and damaged a Red Crescent hospital.
Iraqi television showed Saddam smiling and laughing in a meeting with ministers–hours after speculation swirled around world financial markets that he might be dead. It was unclear if the pictures were new.
Some troops had crossed to the east bank of the Euphrates–bridging the main natural obstacle on their route to Baghdad.
Forces heading up the Tigris valley from the southeast were as close as 40 km (25 miles) to the city–the source said.
"The dagger is clearly pointed at the heart of the Baghdad regime,” US Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said.
Journalists taken to see civilian casualties of bombing in the town of Hilla–100 km (60 miles) due south of Baghdad–saw Iraqi forces steeling for war but looking relaxed.
Flatbed trailers unloaded tanks by the highway to Baghdad–firmly in Iraqi hands despite the US advance into this area. Petrol pits were set alight to obscure visibility from the air.
The two powerful US columns are now closing on the capital from the south and southeast after an aerial bombardment that battered elite units guarding the city for more than a week.
But in a Reuters poll–defense experts said US troops were likely to need another four to eight weeks to take Baghdad.
US forces are present in parts of north and west Iraq–but too few to be able to fight towards Baghdad on those fronts.
Saddam urged a Kurdish faction controlling part of northern Iraq to side with him against the US-led assault–warning it not to help the United States open a new war front.
Brooks said the northward thrust–just before the war enters its third week–had taken some US troops across a "red line” around Baghdad–into the area where the military believes Iraqi forces might be most likely to launch a poison-gas attack.
"If it’s used–we’ll be prepared,” he said. "It causes us to maintain protective postures of our forces as they approach this area–but it doesn’t make us stop.”
REPUBLICAN GUARD DIVISION "DESTROYED”
The United States launched the war on March 20 to oust Saddam and rid Iraq of the weapons of mass destruction whose existence Baghdad denies. Invasion forces have yet to find any.
Brooks said US troops had destroyed the Baghdad Division of the Republican Guard near the town of Kut–170 km (105 miles) southeast of Baghdad–and had fought two other Guard divisions.
Two huge US bombs exploded near Kut–sending up giant mushroom clouds–Reuters correspondent Sean Maguire reported.
However–Iraq dismissed as illusions reports US forces had crossed the Tigris or made gains elsewhere–and an army spokesman’said the Baghdad Division was in control and "enjoys high morale to fight the enemy and destroy it.”
In Baghdad–Reuters reporter Samia Nakhoul reported bombs killed several motorists and damaged a Red Crescent hospital. At least five cars were crushed–their drivers burned to death. Hospital sources said at least 25 people including patients were wounded in daylight raids which also pulverized buildings in a trade fair–next to a government security office.
US planes pounded central Baghdad–striking at least three times a compound where Saddam’s son Qusay–commander of the Republican Guard–has his headquarters.
Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf said air strikes had killed 24 civilians and wounded 186 in the past 24 hours–with 10 dead and 90 wounded in Baghdad alone.
"No matter how many Iraqi civilians they kill–this will make us even stronger and even more determined to repel the invasion and to defeat them,” Sahaf said.
City defenders have been preparing for urban warfare. Pick-up trucks equipped with machine-guns and anti-aircraft guns are dotted across the city.
On world markets–the rapid US offensive pleased investors hoping for a speedy end to the war. Stocks and the dollar rose–oil tumbled and traditional safe haven assets fell sharply.
BOMBING IN THE NORTH
In the north–B-52s pummeled frontlines near Mosul city and bombed targets near the oil hub of Kirkuk–Reuters correspondent Jon Hemming reported from Kurdish-held territory nearby.
Helicopters and fighter planes strafed Fedayeen militia active in Najaf–another Shi’ite shrine city in central Iraq.
Sahaf accused the Americans of bombing shrines there–while a US spokesman accused Iraqi forces in Najaf of firing from the gold-domed shrine of Ali–one of the holiest sites for Shi’ite Muslims. The Americans did not return fire–he said.
The advances on the broad Euphrates and Tigris–which flows through Baghdad–came after US troops halted their push for the capital for several days to bolster vulnerable supply lines.
The commander of British forces in Iraq–Air Marshall Brian Burridge–said the decisive phase of the war had begun but might not end soon. "Decisive phases often take time,” he said.
"We need to proceed with great delicacy in Baghdad,” he said. "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.”
The US-led forces want to win over the sympathies of Iraqis who have proved far more hostile to invasion than the troops were led to believe–but a promised flow of humanitarian aid into Iraq is still being held up by security fears.
In the southern city of Nassiriya–where US forces have faced tenacious resistance–Marines staged a decoy attack to cover the rescue of a US woman’soldier–Jessica Lynch–19.
Special forces plucked her from a hospital where she had been held since her convoy was ambushed on March 23.
Lynch had two broken legs and a broken arm. The bodies of two US soldiers were also recovered from the hospital.
Iraq says more than 650 civilians have been killed and more than 4,000 wounded during the war. Grisly television images of Iraqi casualties have fueled Arab anger over the invasion.
The United States has paid little heed to the diplomatic fallout from the Iraq conflict–but Secretary of State Colin Powell has begun a hastily arranged trip to heal bruised relations with allies in Turkey and the European Union.
After talks in Ankara he said a small US force in northern Iraq had brought the stability needed to allay many of Turkey’s worries and head off any need for a feared Turkish incursion.