U.S. Army troops captured one of Saddam Hussein’s presidential palaces, fired on another and blew up one of his statues as they rolled into the center of this isolated, faltering capital today, and American military intelligence said the collapse of the Iraqi leader’s regime was only days away.
“Saddam Hussein says he owns Baghdad,” said Col. David Perkins, commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division. “Wrong. We own Baghdad.”
Resistance came mainly from small-arms fire as a column of tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles entered the city on Route 8 shortly after dawn, under cover from F-16 jets and A-10 Wart- hogs. A white van, apparently carrying paramilitary forces loyal to Hussein, was destroyed as it raced toward the column.
Demonstrating that allied forces could do what they wanted at the heart of Hussein’s power, soldiers from the 3rd Infantry entered his New Presidential Palace, and five tanks and several Bradleys fired at the Old Palace. Columns of black smoke rose from both, and gunfire rattled through the city.
Perkins said there was “minimal” loss of life.
Despite the intensity of the fighting, Maj. Rumi Nielson-Green with the U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, cautioned against characterizing it as “the final push” in the battle for Baghdad.
Nonetheless, the raid, the allies’ second in three days, came after U.S. Marines, nearly 25,000 strong, linked up with thousands of Army infantry and cut of most of the roads in and out of the city. “At this point, Baghdad is surrounded,” squawked a voice of a battalion radio channel.
“And we’re smack dab in the middle of it.”
The latest developments gave the impression of a regime entering its death throes, tipping on the verge of collapse. Intelligence reports said a number of high-level officials from Hussein’s Baath Party were trying to flee Baghdad. The reports said Hussein’s ability to control the city was slipping and predicted that the fall of his government was imminent.
“Regime collapse is a matter of days, not weeks,” one report concluded.
At a chaotic news conference on the roof of a hotel in central Baghdad just blocks away from U.S. forces, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf told reporters: “There is no presence of American columns in the city of Baghdad at all. They were surrounded, and they were dealt with, and their columns were smoldered.
“The American mercenaries will commit suicide at the walls of Baghdad,” he shouted over the din of machine-gun fire, against a pall of smoke rising from one of the presidential palaces in the background. “I would encourage them to increase their rate of committing suicide.
“Their [armored] columns are being killed by the hundreds at the walls of Baghdad.”
At one point, an interpreter translating Sahaf’s words into English for Britain’s Sky News television was overwhelmed by the absurdity and started laughing.
As the sun came up today, the scene around the Iraqi capital was surreal.
Marines had repaired a bridge across the Diyala River, adjacent to the Tigris River, and began rolling across all four lanes.
They worked on the second bridge and tried to put pontoons in place.
“We’re in Baghdad,” declared Marine Brig. Gen. John Kelly. “And we’re in Baghdad to stay.”
Two oil fires, apparently lighted by government defenders, burned on the west bank of the Tigris, near downtown.
On the east side of the river, cars waiting to flee lined up to get gas.
Fox-TV video showed 3rd Infantry tanks on the grounds of the sand-colored Old Presidential Palace, with large arches and a dome.
Army Capt. Chris Carter and another soldier waved a University of Georgia flag -- red and black and white emblazoned with a large letter G -- as they stood on the grounds of the palace complex.
One soldier said he planned to take a shower inside the palace, which was said to have “running water and gold faucets.”
Hours earlier, a man who many at the U.S. Defense Department would like to see replace Hussein as Iraq’s leader, Ahmed Chalabi, was flown from exile into the southern city of Nasiriyah on Sunday aboard an American C-130 aircraft.
Chalabi was accompanied by 500 troops designated the 1st Battalion Free Iraqi Forces. A statement issued by Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress said his soldiers would be deployed near Nasiriyah and come under the U.S. Central Command.
In Washington, U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC’s “This Week” that Chalabi’s troops were “Iraqi citizens who want to fight for a free Iraq, who will become basically the core of the new Iraqi army once Iraq is free.”
Pace and Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, deputy director of operations at Central Command, outlined these allied plans for Baghdad:
“Military commanders will slowly but surely take on various parts of the city,” he said. “They will clean them out.” Every day, Pace said, “large U.S. armored formations” will drive through the city, “taking a long, slow sweep and destroying all the enemy vehicles and personnel that they ... come into contact with.”
Sometimes, Brooks told reporters at Central Command, snapping his fingers, “it will be just like that, and we’re into Baghdad. Sometimes we’ll stay, sometimes we won’t. Sometimes it will be like what you see in Basra or Najaf or Nasiriyah, where we want to attack a specific regime location where a meeting is ongoing and kill everyone that’s in the meeting. ... That could happen in Baghdad.”
As in the past, Pace said, U.S. forces were contacting Iraqi officers and seeking their surrender. But now, he said, in some cases they were offering letters signed by Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of allied forces in Iraq, saying the Iraqis could save themselves and their troops.
Some of the Iraqi officers have begun to respond “in some sense,” Pace said. He offered no specifics. But he said that no senior commander has taken Franks up on his offer.
Meanwhile, southeast of Nasiriyah, several thousand British troops entered Basra, the second-largest city in the country. They were met with an uneasy relief among some residents, who said they were glad that resistance from Iraqi military and paramilitary fighters appeared to be crumbling. But Basra eluded complete control.
In the north, an allied warplane struck U.S. Special Forces who were traveling with Kurdish fighters, killing 17 Kurd fighters and a Kurdish interpreter for the British Broadcasting Corp., officials in the region said.
The Kurdish officials said two or three U.S. soldiers and 45 other people were injured. Officials at Central Command said, however, that one civilian was killed and one U.S. soldier, one Kurdish soldier and four civilians were hurt.
At the same time, Ansar al Islam guerrillas in northern Iraq, described by the United States as tied to Al Qaeda, were surrendering to Kurdish fighters allied with U.S. forces.
More than 300 of the Ansar fighters have agreed to turn themselves over to the Kurds, according to Kurdish officials. Two, described as a bomb-maker and an assassin, were being held just across the border in Iran.
As nearly the entire 1st Marine Division massed around the southern perimeter of Baghdad, it formed a string of encampments across the Tigris River, less than five miles from the Iraqi capital.
“It’s like all of Camp Pendleton has moved here,” one Marine said.
Artillery batteries and airstrikes pounded leftover Republican Guard positions within the city for most of the day and night. Backed by tanks and assault helicopters, the Marines lobbed shells at Iraqis across the water.
Aircraft screamed overhead, and explosions split the air. One member of a Marine tank crew reportedly was killed.
Army units linked up with the Marines, including elements of the 3rd Infantry. As Cyclone Company of the 4th Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment, rolled into position, it destroyed 12 Iraqi tanks within about four miles.
Eager to highlight any successes, the Iraqi Information Ministry arranged a visit for foreign journalists to see a U.S. Abrams tank that had been destroyed Saturday. Soldiers and civilians clambered aboard the wreckage of the tank and chanted slogans of loyalty to the Hussein regime.
What Iraqi escorts did not say was that the tank had been destroyed by American soldiers to keep it out of Iraqi hands after it had become disabled during a firefight and had to be abandoned.
For good measure, U.S. military sources said, the tank was struck by a rocket from an American warplane as the Iraqis tried to tow it away.
The sources said as many as 3,000 Iraqis were killed during Saturday’s firefight, part of a major U.S. probe into Baghdad. As a result, U.S. military intelligence sources said, Republican Guard forces defending the city and its airport effectively ceased to exist as coherent battlefield units.
“We have not seen any examples of organized combat action,” Brooks said at Central Command. He said counterattacks in and around the capital and at the airport consisted of “small pockets” of company-sized units rarely exceeding 20 to 40 vehicles.
They were manned by paramilitary groups and Baath Party members who are loyal to Hussein.
“We believe that there are still some low levels of command and control in some of the military formations,” Brooks said.
“But as we find capability that exhibits that, we attack it,” he said.
Marine commanders have described the Baghdad, Medina and Al Nida divisions of the Republican Guard as effectively demolished.
Brooks said there was no indication that any of three Republican Guard divisions still largely intact north of Baghdad were rushing to join the fight.
“Some of them may have moved toward Baghdad,” Brooks said, “but we have not seen any movements into Baghdad.”
That left only one major Iraqi force inside the city -- Hussein’s Special Republican Guard, a group of 30- to 60-year-olds drawn from cadres with religious or tribal ties to Hussein. The force is estimated to have more than 10,000 members.
In the south, the entry of British forces into Basra seemed to have broken a two-week standoff.
Military officials said the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, elements of the Black Watch Regiment, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and the Royal Marine Commandos faced only token opposition as they entered the city.
“We are moving in in sizable numbers and will take ground,” British Group Capt. Al Lockwood said. “We’ve seen some breakdown in law and order, and that’s an indication to us that the Baath Party officials who have been holding people against their will are finally losing ground.”
Meanwhile, British military sources said today that Gen. Ali Hassan Majid had been killed in an airstrike Saturday on his Basra villa, the Associated Press reported.
Majid, one of Hussein’s cousins, is known as “Chemical Ali” for his role in gas warfare that killed thousands of Kurds in 1988 in northern Iraq. In Basra, he is known for his brutal crackdown on a Shiite Muslim uprising in the early 1990s.
The imminent fall of Basra seemed to have a psychological effect.
Resistance by paramilitary units in other cities, including Samawah, Najaf and Karbala, had diminished, Brooks told reporters at Central Command. U.S. military sources said Karbala had fallen to American control.
The “friendly fire” incident in the north occurred when U.S. Special Forces traveling with a convoy of Kurdish forces called in an airstrike to turn back the advance of an Iraqi armored unit.
Instead of hitting the Iraqi unit, an allied warplane scored a direct hit on the Kurdish column.
Kurdish officials said the injured included some of their key leaders. Among the wounded was Wajy Barzani, brother of Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Massoud Barzani.
“It has impact,” said Hoshyar Zebari, a senior Kurdistan Democratic Party leader. “It was painful. Most of the command personnel were there.”
In another incident, a convoy carrying Russian diplomats and journalists fleeing Baghdad came under fire Sunday shortly after it left the city on the highway to Syria.
Five people were wounded by small-arms fire, which witnesses said came first from an apparent firefight in the area between U.S. and Iraqi forces, then later from a column of jeeps.
Central Command officials said American forces were not operating in the area, but a statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell called Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov and “expressed deep regret.”
The Foreign Ministry said the wounded included Vladimir Titorenko, the Russian ambassador to Iraq.
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Military totals (as of 7 p.m. Pacific time Sunday)
U.S Britain Iraq Killed 81 30 unknown
Missing 8 0 unknown
Captured 7 0 6,500
* Iraq has said at least 1,252 civilians have been killed and 5,103 hurt. Five journalists -- two Britons, an American, an Australian and an Iranian -- have been killed. On Sunday, 17 Kurdish fighters and an interpreter for the British Broadcasting Co. were reported killed in an errant airstrike.
Mohan reported with the 3rd Infantry Division, Daniszewski from Baghdad and Perry with the 1st Marine Division. Times staff writers Tyler Marshall, Tracy Wilkinson, Mark Porubcansky and Jailan Zayan in Doha, Qatar; Mark Magnier in Basra; David Holley in Moscow; and Jeffrey Fleishman and Paul Watson in northern Iraq contributed to this report.