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U.S. Invades ‘Heart of Baghdad’

Times Staff Writers

U.S. tanks rolled into Baghdad today, invading the Iraqi capital as the war to remove Saddam Hussein from power appeared to enter a decisive phase.

“Coalition forces have penetrated into the heart of Baghdad,” U.S. Central Command spokesman Capt. Frank Thorp said in Doha, Qatar. “They are continuing to move and have no intention of withdrawing.”

It was the first penetration into the capital by regular U.S. troops, and it followed another night of heavy aerial bombardment, but it remained unclear when -- or whether -- the American push would take complete control of the city of 5 million.

With remarkable speed, “substantial” numbers of troops were inside the city by midday today, U.S. military officials said. At least four Americans were reported wounded.

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Moving in from the south, elements of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division met sporadic fire from Iraqi fighters but also passed small clusters of waving men and children, as well as Republican Guard tanks in flames.

Elements of the 1st Marine Division rolled in from the east, rumbling over a bridge in the vicinity of the Rashid military airport. Thousands of other Marines were following them into the city.

Artillery boomed and Cobra helicopters roared overhead in what was believed to be a mopping-up mission by the Marines against remaining forces of the Republican Guard.

In a separate operation south of Baghdad, the headquarters of the Republican Guard’s lead Medina Division was captured in the town of Suwayrah. The 3rd Infantry’s 2nd Brigade destroyed tanks, artillery pieces and empty bunkers with little return fire.

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“How much more do we need to do?” Capt. Steve Berry said from a point overlooking the desolate base. “These guys aren’t fighting.”

The fight seemed so easy that soldiers were popping up from their tank hatches and firing at portraits of Hussein hanging from walls and gates.

The move into Baghdad came hours after a man who appeared to be the Iraqi president was shown twice on television Friday, rallying his people for the climactic fight ahead. The videotapes of Hussein were evidently made after the beginning of the U.S.-led war on his regime and seemed designed to tell Iraqis and the Arab world that he had survived the fierce U.S. and British bombardment aimed at removing him from power.

Senior U.S. officials said they were analyzing the tapes to see whether they showed the real Hussein but insisted that it wouldn’t matter if they did.

“In the bigger scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter,” White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said, “because whether it is him or whether it isn’t him, the regime’s days are numbered and are coming to an end.”

As the U.S.-British alliance said it had effectively destroyed two of the six divisions of Hussein’s Republican Guard and inflicted substantial damage on the remaining four divisions, Iraqi authorities warned they would strike back by unspecified “nonconventional” means, but said that would not include weapons of mass destruction.

A suicide bomber detonated a car at a checkpoint staffed by U.S. Special Forces near the strategic Hadithah dam, 120 miles northwest of Baghdad, killing three soldiers and two occupants of the car, including at least one woman. Closer to Baghdad, U.S. Marines fired on a truck that refused to stop at a checkpoint, killing as many as seven civilians, including three children, according to defense officials and reporters traveling with the troops.

Early today, the Pentagon identified eight soldiers whose bodies were discovered during the rescue of an American POW in Iraq this week, saying they were part of an Army maintenance unit ambushed near Nasiriyah on March 23.

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U.S. commandos found the bodies, along with the remains of another as-yet-unidentified service member, when they rescued Pfc. Jessica Lynch from a hospital in Nasiriyah.

On Friday, U.S. forces solidified their hold on Baghdad’s airport. Just a day earlier, Information Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf had insisted that Americans were nowhere near Baghdad or Saddam International Airport. By Friday, when the Americans unilaterally renamed it Baghdad International Airport, Sahaf insisted that the invading troops were trapped there and would never emerge alive.

What seemed clear was that both sides were shifting into position for the pivotal phase of the war.

U.S. forces were coming at Baghdad from three directions, all generally to the south of the capital. U.S. officials said they were not sure what Iraqi troops were doing, but some analysts said they believe at least some were retreating into Baghdad to make a last stand there.

Pentagon officials had said Thursday that the allies might try to avoid a major urban battle by relying instead on a policy that focuses on leadership targets and that seeks to isolate the capital, rendering it “irrelevant.”

Still, Victoria Clarke, a Pentagon spokeswoman, warned that “the very toughest fighting could lie ahead.”

Thousands of Baghdad residents, clearly believing that a battle for the capital was imminent, flooded north out of the city.

Although U.S. forces have swooped down on Baghdad with great speed in recent days, a U.S. Marine regimental commander was replaced Friday after being accused of showing too much caution in his drive on the capital. The wartime reassignment of Col. Joe W. Dowdy, who had commanded the 1st Marine Regiment, was considered highly unusual.

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Humanitarian aid began flowing into northern Iraq through Turkey for the first time during the war. Twenty trucks carrying 475 tons of wheat flour left Turkey late Friday.

The U.N. World Food Program, which organized the convoy, said the fighting has disrupted food supplies to the region. A second U.N. convoy is to deliver 1,000 tons of flour over the weekend, the agency said, and the two shipments will be enough to make bread for 70,000 people for a month. Larger shipments of staples are to follow.

In another prong of the public opinion campaign, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in London that 60,000 leaflets were being prepared for ground distribution in major Iraqi cities bearing Blair’s personal commitment to “a peaceful, prosperous Iraq which will be run by and for the Iraqi people.”

Blair said the leaflet would promise to deliver schools and hospitals in place of “palaces and weapons of mass destruction.”

There were mixed signals about the likelihood that the Iraqis would use such weapons. U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a chemical or biological attack would be illogical now that allied troops are so close to civilians. But, he noted, “they have not fought logically from the beginning, so we’ve got to be ready for the entire spectrum of capability.”

Nevertheless, with daytime temperatures hovering around 100 degrees, numerous U.S. units in the battlefield Friday reported being allowed to take off their chemical protection suits for the first time in 15 days. There was no official explanation from Central Command headquarters, but reporters traveling with the troops suggested that the heat was a factor. There have been some reports of heat exhaustion among the troops.

The tapes of a defiant Hussein appeared designed to quell rumors that the Iraqi leader was dead or in exile. The war began March 20 with a U.S. missile attack on a house where Hussein was believed to be staying, and he had not been seen in public since, except in tapes that conceivably could have been recorded before the war. But in one of Friday’s tapes, a man who appeared to be Hussein waded through a crowd of cheering supporters, smiling and shaking his fist. Behind him, a column of black smoke rose into the sky -- a familiar sight in Baghdad since the beginning the war, when the Iraqis set oil fires to reduce visibility for allied warplanes.

In the other tape, Hussein spoke to the camera from inside a building, mentioning, among other things, the downing of a U.S. Apache helicopter March 24 in a battle in central Iraq. Iraqi officials had credited a farmer with shooting down the chopper -- a scenario that U.S. officials considered highly unlikely.

“Perhaps you remember the valiant Iraqi peasant and how he shot down an American Apache with an old weapon,” Hussein said in the brief speech. He also said U.S.-led forces had “bypassed” Iraqi defenses in the battlefield and urged his followers to “strike them forcefully, strike them.”

A lethal strike by Iraqis did come Friday in the suicide attack at the Special Forces checkpoint. Among those killed was a pregnant Iraqi woman who ran screaming from the car “in obvious distress” moments before the explosion, said an official with Central Command in Doha.

Military officials speculated that the woman had been forced to accompany a male bomber as a cover. But the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television network later showed a videotape of two women, one of them the purported driver of the car, leaving behind a message that they were staging the attack to lash out at “infidel Americans, British and Israelis.” Although Israel has no overt involvement in the war, people throughout the Arab world regard it as an enemy for its treatment of Palestinians.

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

But most of the damage Friday was inflicted by American forces.

Troops from the 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade fought spotty resistance at the airport, about 10 miles southwest of downtown Baghdad, and declared it secured. “It is the gateway to the future of Iraq,” Central Command spokesman Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said in Doha.

Acquiring the airport prevents Hussein and members of his regime from taking a flight into exile and gives U.S. and British forces a forward air base, Brooks said. But Pentagon officials cautioned that until the surrounding area was secured, the airport could not be used to ferry in troops and supplies. Slow-moving cargo planes could be easy marks for Iraqi antiaircraft artillery.

Pictures from the airport showed that the runways had been torn up and that at least one Iraqi Airlines jet was a charred, twisted mess. Soldiers at the airport were conducting room-by-room searches of buildings and hangars and flushing out a network of underground tunnels.

Clarke, the Pentagon spokeswoman, said U.S. troops focused their attack on the airport in part because it offers a way to strike at nearby underground complexes and palaces that have been used by top officials of Hussein’s regime. At least 2,500 Republican Guard soldiers were reported to have surrendered and uncounted scores were killed in the march on Baghdad. Hurriedly discarded uniforms were scattered along roadsides where Iraqi tanks smoldered in orchards and under palm trees.

U.S. infantry and armor had crushed the Republican Guard’s Medina and Baghdad divisions Thursday, military commanders said, and on Friday took on the Al Nida Division as they breached Iraqi defenses at a third point. By late afternoon Friday, the Marines’ lead elements had reached the town of Al Jisr, where the Tigris River splits just south of Baghdad. During the day, they moved forward, engaging in a series of short, sharp firefights with Iraqi units dug into fixed positions or holed up in buildings along a paved road that parallels the south bank of the Tigris.

The fighting was characterized as vigorous but unorganized.

“I don’t think they wanted to fight. The writing on the wall is clear -- it’s only a matter of time. Lots of this equipment looks like it was abandoned,” said Lt. Sam Meites, 23, of Chicago.

Marine commanders said they believe that some remaining units of the Medina Division may have been involved in Friday’s fighting. The Marines were aided by heavy artillery and airstrikes on the Iraqi positions. According to Marine Col. John Toolan, who replaced Col. Dowdy at the helm of the 1st Marine Regiment, the Al Nida Division appeared to be crumbling -- but falling back into Baghdad.

“We’re pushing them back,” Toolan said. “But they are showing more initiative than other units.” During their advance, the Marines captured one large Iraqi army post and four airstrips big enough to allow transport planes to land with crucial supplies. The ability to fly supplies and equipment into areas close to Baghdad will help ease pressure on the long, difficult and dangerous route north from Kuwait, Marine commanders said.

Toolan also said that Marine Harrier aircraft, which provide close air support to troops on the ground, were being moved into forward airstrips.

In other fighting Friday, Cyclone Company of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 4th Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment, recovered from an ambush Thursday on Highway 1 south of Baghdad, heading south, then east, and engaging in a virtual turkey shoot, destroying at least a battalion’s worth of Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles.

In one six-hour attack, two U.S. platoons destroyed some of the most advanced weaponry of the Republican Guard, including half a dozen antiaircraft guns and a rocket launcher. There was little resistance. At one point, a group of Iraqi soldiers was seen throwing uniforms into a canal and running away.

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Perry reported with the 1st Marine Division and Mohan with the 3rd Infantry Division. Times staff writers Tyler Marshall and Tracy Wilkinson in Doha; Richard Boudreaux in Ankara, Turkey; Paul Richter and Robin Wright in Washington; and Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.

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Casualties

Military totals (as of 4 p.m. Pacific time Friday)

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U.S Britain Iraq Killed 75 27 Unknown

Missing 8 0 Unknown

Captured 7 0 4,500

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