The Army's 3rd Infantry Division fought its way to the southern and western outskirts of Baghdad Thursday, advancing one of the prime missions of the war: the cordoning off of the Iraqi capital. Two division brigades and the 3-7 Cavalry Squadron moved in to block major highways leading into the capital and also to seize Baghdad International Airport.
Backed by artillery and close air support from Apache helicopters, they battled throughout the day with Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard forces massed in the south to defend the exit routes.
Iraqis at the airport were using air- defense artillery against the US forces in an effort to hold the airport. By evening, one 3rd Infantry Division soldier had been killed and several others wounded by shrapnel and small-arms fire.
"We will probably fight all night for this. This is the biggest fight of the war," says Lt. Col. Woody Radcliffe, commander of a division operation center. "This will seal Baghdad from the south and southwest, so we won't let anyone in or out."
In some areas, the enemy was retreating and Iraqi soldiers were seen dropping their AK-47s and fleeing. There were reports of up to 400 Iraqis surrendering at one time. "Some soldiers changed into civilian clothing and left behind their uniforms," said Maj. Reg Neal, who monitored the division's command network.
As US forces approached Baghdad from the south, "a lot of Iraqi vehicles were abandoned," he says. Also left behind by the Iraqis were 155-millimeter howitzers.
Indeed, Thursday's fight indicated that many fighters most loyal to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein were retreating into Baghdad, possibly to prepare for a last stand there.
"Outside Baghdad, there has been sporadic and disorganized opposition" from Iraqis mainly firing RPGs, mortars, and small-arms weapons, Major Neal said.
As US forces descend on Baghdad, the stakes have increased significantly for Mr. Hussein, should he choose to use chemical weapons. Such weapons would likely kill many more Iraqi soldiers and civilians than US troops, especially if the prevailing winds are toward the north over the city, US intelligence officers say.
"He has missed his window of opportunity," says one officer. He noted that US forces are now far north of the "red line" beyond which Hussein had allegedly threatened to use chemical weapons.
Thursday began with the 3rd Infantry Division crossing the bridge secured over the Euphrates River. Heading north, the armored and mechanized infantry battalions moved to clear areas surrounding a major highway leading directly into Baghdad.
At one point, however, a live television broadcast of the combat caused alarm among commanders when a US tank was struck by Iraqi RPG fire.
Officers tracking the battle heard the strike reported over the military radios just as others watched it unfold on television in the next room.
"We need to stop the live Fox news feed immediately," a division commander ordered. "You can see locations from the feed," he said over the command network.
Terrain features depicted in the broadcast, as well as cellphone communications, were giving the Iraqis too much information on the battle, officers said.
As US forces rolled into the more densely populated outskirts of Baghdad, problems also arose with Iraqi civilians trying to flee the fighting. One truckload of Iraqis, including children, mistakenly ran into a tank of the 3-7 Cavalry. At least two Iraqis were injured and were being treated by squadron medics.
The battle on Thursday marks the beginning of a drive by US ground forces, including the Marines, to completely isolate Baghdad.
Once the city is cordoned off, "We'll turn to the next focus: Getting rid of Saddam Hussein," says Maj. Edwin Collins of the division operations center.