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U.S. troops near Baghdad, attack Republican Guard outside city

NEAR KARBALA, Iraq—The opening phase of the battle for Baghdad erupted early Wednesday as thousands of U.S. Army troops and Marines thundered into action, approaching Republican Guard divisions that block the southern passages to the capital.

In the full-scale ground attack, all three brigades of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division drove toward a Republican Guard division southwest of Baghdad while a large force of Marines lunged for a Republican Guard division southeast of the capital.

"We continue to tighten the noose around Baghdad," said Lt. Col. George Smith at Marine combat headquarters in Iraq.

Only light mortar fire and other minor resistance was reported in the early hours of the attack and no immediate reports surfaced of U.S. casualties. On Tuesday, one U.S. soldier was killed in south-central Iraq, raising the U.S. death toll to 49 since the war began.

The largest U.S. military assault since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the invasion moved along two fronts and marked the beginning of what was expected to be a key battle of this second Gulf War—the struggle to breach Republican Guard lines and reach the seat of Saddam Hussein's power about 50 miles away.

If successful, the double-barreled advance—which followed a four-day halt in large-scale movement—could strip away the outer layer of Baghdad's defenses and leave only two other Guard divisions standing between U.S. forces and Saddam.

On the western front, rockets illuminated an already starlit sky over Karbala, a city of 400,000 residents. U.S. tanks rumbled north and east. Ground soldiers prepared for heavy combat with Saddam's most loyal fighters.

It was just after 1:30 a.m. local time when the Army's 3rd Infantry launched its advance toward the Republican Guard's armored Medina division.

"We're all at a certain place and a certain time," said Col. Dan Allyn, commander of the unit's 3rd Brigade, which led the attack. "This is my calling. I hope to make the right decisions at the right time to protect my forces."

The Army's advance occurred near a region called the Karbala Gap, a 20- to 25-mile-wide sliver of land about 50 miles south of Baghdad. The Army and Republican Guard have been positioned in that area, opposite each other, for days.

Bombs dropped from warplanes and artillery rounds and rockets launched from multiple positions on the ground flashed on the northern horizon, one blast after another, and another, and another.

Hours earlier, the Marines began their offensive on the eastern front, moving north from Nasiriyah to Kut, a city of 400,000 people. They expected to engage the Republican Guard's Baghdad division near that city, which sits astride the Tigris River and a second southern route to Baghdad.

The Marines reported destroying three T-55 tanks and finding abandoned military vehicles. But another part of the advance stopped at a bridge that would not bear the 70-ton weight of their Abrams tanks. That attack was to resume before dawn Wednesday.

In Baghdad, Iraqi officials appeared to foreshadow the importance of the battle, issuing what they said was a personal plea by Saddam that Iraqis lay down their lives for his regime and their country.

The message had a stronger-than-usual religious component and Saddam did not appear. Instead, the statement was read by Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf. Some U.S. analysts believe Saddam was killed or incapacitated by the missile strike that opened the war nearly two weeks ago.

"Those who are martyred will be rewarded in heaven," the statement said. "Seize the opportunity, my brothers. Strike at them, fight them. They are aggressors, evil, accursed by God. You shall be victorious and they shall be vanquished."

At the White House, President Bush conducted a teleconference with Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who commands all allied forces in the Persian Gulf, and was briefed on the conduct of the war and the coming action, according to senior U.S. officials, who requested anonymity.

The briefing, which began at 8:40 a.m. EST Wednesday and lasted for 50 minutes, was "upbeat" and noted that Iraqi tanks and other essential equipment were being destroyed at a rapid pace, one official said, while U.S. strength is growing. The president is giving a free hand to Franks and his commanders to prosecute the war as they see fit.

Normally, a Republican Guard division has 8,000 troops, but the Medina and Baghdad divisions' current strengths were not known; the bombardments may have weakened them, but reinforcements for them also may have arrived.

The 3rd Infantry was at full strength, with about 9,000 front-line combat troops and about 11,000 support personnel. About 4,000 Marines were moving into position along the eastern front.

A swarm of allied jets and attack helicopters spearheaded the coordinated U.S. attacks, with showers of bombs and rockets against enemy positions that started at 6:20 a.m. local time and continued deep into the day. Cobra helicopters left a trail of smoldering vehicles in the town of Hayy, between Nasiriyah and Kut.

Seventy percent of all the day's flights by Marine aircraft were devoted to bombing the Medina and Baghdad divisions in front of the advancing American troops, Marine officers said.

Throughout the day, allied warplanes also battered Baghdad. Nearly all telephone service was interrupted and the bombs also targeted the Iraqi National Olympic Committee, where Saddam's eldest son, Odai, allegedly runs torture chambers.

In northern Iraq, intense bombardments on enemy positions appeared to be having the desired effect as Iraqi infantrymen and antiaircraft gunners were seen preparing to withdraw from encampments east of Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city.

Iraqi officials said 56 people were killed and 268 wounded in Tuesday's bombings. The numbers could not be verified.

"They're indiscriminately killing people," said al-Sahhaf. "Hilla is my hometown. It is a civilian place."

For the second time in less than a day, U.S. soldiers shot Iraqis at a checkpoint in south-central Iraq. Troops of the 82nd Airborne Division killed one Iraqi and wounded three after a white pickup truck attempted to crash into the soldiers outside Samawah.

On Monday, 11 Iraqi civilians were killed after ignoring orders to stop at a checkpoint in Najaf. No U.S. soldiers were injured in either incident, but four were killed Saturday in a suicide car bombing at a checkpoint.

"We're not at all unfamiliar with the types of threats," U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said at coalition headquarters in Qatar. "We know it's not a benign environment.

"We always maintain the inherent right of self-defense."

He said the two latest incidents would be investigated.

"We make every effort to warn, to try to cause a halt to the potential danger before it escalates beyond a point at which it can be controlled," he said. "We believe that we are still following our procedures well."

In Samawah, U.S. troops said Iraqi paramilitary fighters attempted to use an ambulance to transport troops. "They stopped and guys got out of the back and shot at us," said Maj. Pete Wilhelm, a spokesman for the 82nd Airborne Division, which is leading the assault on Samawah.

Other Iraqi fighters brazenly charged at American soldiers, U.S. officers said.

"What kind of people run right into a weapon, knowing I'm going to do the right thing and blow them away?" said Col. Arnold Bray.

He said some Iraqis may have no alternative other than being shot by militants as punishment for not fighting the Americans. "There are guys surrendering to us who say more want to surrender but they can't because their families are being held at gunpoint," Bray said.

One soldier from the 141st Mechanized Infantry died in combat near Samawah. His name was not released.

Another soldier was shot in the cheek. Medics asked him what happened to the bullet.

"He said he spit it out, along with a couple of teeth," said Michael Belle Isle, a medical corpsman.

In other developments Tuesday:

_The Iraqis escalated more than the rhetoric: For the first time since the war began, they fired a ballistic missile at allied forces inside Iraq. U.S. officials said a Patriot antimissile weapon destroyed the Iraqi missile in mid-flight. The location of the incident was not disclosed.

_The 1st Marine Division secured 40 warehouses in south-central Iraq that U.S. officials said stored as much ammunition as the Marine base at Camp Pendleton in California. The unit also destroyed what it called a Baath Party headquarters site in the region, finding AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and an antiaircraft artillery weapon.

_The 3rd Infantry, 101st Airborne and 82nd Airborne divisions found small pockets of resistance in central Iraq, destroying Iraqi weapons and capturing about 50 prisoners. In all, the units have taken about 700 prisoners.

_In southeast Iraq, the lights went on in Umm Qasr overnight for the first time since the war started, said Lt. Cmdr. Emma Thomas, a British spokeswoman.

British troops continued patrolling the southern Iraqi towns of Safwan, Umm Qasr and Az Zubayr, pointing their guns down to appear less aggressive. The British troops also have set up humanitarian aid distribution sites.

_U.S. troops said they received tips from "increasingly willing" Iraqis—including 100 tribal men near the central Iraqi city of Diwaniyah—who helped Americans capture prisoners, seize weapons and destroy bunkers. Another group reportedly directed Army Rangers to a hospital in western Iraq, where gas masks, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and ammunition were discovered.

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(Harper is with the 3rd Infantry Division near Karbala; Tamayo is with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq; and Merzer anchored from Washington. Also contributing were Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Drew Brown with the 3rd Infantry Division near Karbala; Andrea Gerlin with the Marines in central Iraq; Jessica Guynn at the Pentagon; Mark Johnson in Samawah, Iraq; Mark MacDonald in Kalak, northern Iraq; and Peter Smolowitz at allied headquarters in Qatar.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ.

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064):

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