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Coalition forces close in on Baghdad; Republican Guard hard to find

OUTSIDE BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. troops closed to within 20 miles of Baghdad on Wednesday, punching through the remnants of Republican Guard divisions and rolling nearly within sight of Saddam Hussein's seat of power.

"The dagger is clearly pointed at the heart of the regime," said U.S. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks. "We know we have the regime on the run."

Still ahead: the battle for the capital itself. Still unknown: the location of thousands of Republican Guard troops who seem to have vanished in the fields and marshes, the sandy hills and lush rice fields.

"It's going very well and that makes me nervous," said Col. Larry Brown, chief operations officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. "I fully expected a staged defense, but they just weren't there."

Some officials believed that those troops from the Republican Guard's Baghdad, Medina and other divisions retreated closer to Baghdad, establishing a tight defensive ring around a city now under direct threat of ground attack.

Officials at the Pentagon said U.S. forces advanced to within 30 miles of Baghdad, but field commanders said some units pushed at least 10 miles closer. No new U.S. casualties were reported; the U.S. death toll stood at 49.

Meanwhile, some progress was reported in northern Iraq, where a U.S. airborne brigade prepared to move toward a ridge of hills about 50 miles northeast of Baghdad. The unit was backed by U.S. air power, special operations forces and tens of thousands of Iraqi opposition fighters, according to U.S. and opposition officials.

They said the withdrawal of Republican Guard divisions that had been guarding the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk appeared to have cleared a path for a U.S.-led force that could advance on the capital from that direction.

"We soon will be closing in on Baghdad from all directions, including the north," said a senior administration official in Washington, who requested anonymity.

But he and others cautioned that dangerous days still lay ahead.

"We are expecting or at least planning for a very difficult fight," said Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal at the Pentagon. "We are not expecting to drive into Baghdad suddenly and seize it."

In addition, the U.S. advance has crossed the so-called "red line," the boundary beyond which a desperate Iraqi regime could unleash its full fury, including chemical and biological weapons. Thus far, no such weapons have been used or found.

"Clearly, as we threaten the core of the regime ... we believe that the likelihood of them using those weapons goes up," McChrystal said.

In a key accomplishment Wednesday, U.S. Marine units crossed the Tigris River, hauling tanks and artillery over a seized bridge and gaining control of all major routes to the capital from the southeast, officers said. They also captured an airport at Numaniyah, 90 miles southeast of the capital.

That offensive saw 5,000 Marines threaten the Baghdad Division of Saddam's vaunted Republican Guards from south of the city of Kut, while another 10,000 Marines raced undisturbed to the north, trapping elements of that division.

The Marines encountered only sporadic resistance from small, lightly armed units. "We are attacking, so far, a hollow force," said Lt. Col. Dave Pere.

U.S. military officials said the Iraqi division's leadership was broken, its equipment ruined and many of its soldiers killed or captured.

"The Baghdad division has been destroyed," Brooks said, though he offered no evidence.

Iraqi military officials denied that the division was destroyed. They said it remained ready to fight, though they didn't say where. Saddam declared that "victory is at hand," according to a statement broadcast in his name by Iraqi media.

Before the attack, Marine officers reported that withering U.S. air strikes had decimated the Baghdad division, reducing it from 11,000 soldiers to 6,000 and destroying much of its artillery.

Along the western front, U.S. Army units smashed through the Karbala Gap, seized control of a dam and, within a few hours, cut by more than half their distance to Baghdad.

They also seized a bridge over the Euphrates River near Hindiyah that Iraqis had rigged for destruction but was still intact. Resistance from the Medina and at least one other Republican Guard division also was described as sporadic.

As on the eastern front, unrelenting air strikes and rocket and artillery fire appeared to have taken their toll on Iraq's best-trained and best-equipped forces.

Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers were killed or wounded. Smoldering wrecks of enemy vehicles littered the landscape in every direction. Many other vehicles lay abandoned.

Through much of the day, armored columns roared north, sometimes stopping for fuel or to clear traffic jams of their own making. Apache helicopter gun ships swept overhead, their guns aimed at Iraqis in the distance.

In small groups, Iraqi soldiers emerged from bunkers and from behind sand embankments, their hands raised.

Trying to avoid being drawn into urban warfare, coalition commanders worked to locate surviving elements of Republican Guard divisions and prevent them from retreating into Baghdad, where superior U.S. combat technology is less effective.

McChrystal said some Iraqi forces were concentrated south of the city but their precise components, strength and plans were unknown.

"Are they as weak as we think they are?" McChrystal said. "The battlefield will prove that, but we hope."

And 20,000 more U.S. troops were on the way: The Army's 4th Infantry Division has been unloading soldiers and equipment in Kuwait, ready for action.

To speed and ease that division's passage through southern and central Iraq, U.S. Army and Marine units continued to battle Iraqis in several places along the route to Baghdad.

Troops from the 82nd Airborne Division attacked paramilitary forces in Samawah, about halfway between Kuwait and Baghdad. As pro-Saddam fighters streamed north, the 82nd's helicopters attacked their vehicles, inflicting heavy losses.

U.S. troops also established checkpoints at major intersections in Samawah, where civilians were allowed to pass and many begged for food and water, which was distributed when possible.

In Najaf, another hotly contested city along the western route to Baghdad, the 101st Airborne Division seized an airfield and destroyed two T-55 tanks, 15 other vehicles and a field artillery battery. The Americans captured more than 70 Iraqi soldiers there, bringing the total number of enemy prisoners to more than 4,500.

U.S. and Iraqi forces engaged in hit-and-run battles in Najaf, but U.S. commanders said they were constrained by proximity to the Ali Mosque, one of the world's most important Shiite shrines.

Iraqi soldiers established bunkers in the mosque, according to Brooks, who called it a "detestable example of the regime strategy of deliberately putting sacred sites in danger."

After one stage of the battle, he said, Americans were "welcomed by thousands of citizens."

In other developments Wednesday:

_American planes used 40 satellite-guided bombs to strike a single compound in the Karkh district of Baghdad. The target was described as a storage facility used by Saddam's most trusted forces, the Special Security Organization and, possibly, the Special Republican Guard. The facility was hit with Joint Direction Attack Munitions, or JDAMs.

_U.S. military investigators said they determined that a blast that killed scores of civilians at a Baghdad market last week was not "associated with coalition action."

_Officials at U.S. Central Command said they were investigating allegations that coalition forces killed Iraqi civilians near Hillah, south of Karbala, and bombed a Red Crescent maternity hospital in Baghdad.

_U.S. soldiers from the 141st Mechanized Infantry Battalion found a half-dozen missiles in the southeast corner of Samawah. About 20 feet long, the missiles appeared to be low- to medium-altitude surface-to-air weapons, which are not capable of delivering chemical payloads.

The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force found two al Samoud II missiles on a farm near Hillah, officers said. Those missiles were banned by the United Nations.

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(Brown is with the 3rd Infantry Division near Karbala; Gerlin is with the Marines near Kut; Merzer anchored from Washington. Also contributing were Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Ken Dilanian with the 173rd Airborne Division in northern Iraq; Mark Johnson with the 82nd Airborne Division in Samawah, Iraq; Jonathan S. Landay in northern Iraq; Tony Pugh at the Pentagon; Peter Smolowitz at allied headquarters in Qatar; John Sullivan with the 4th Infantry Division in Kuwait; and Juan O. Tamayo with the Marines in Iraq.)

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

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

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