In an audacious surprise attack, an armored column of US troops thrust through Baghdad suburbs this morning, meeting only "sporadic" resistance to their foray in the streets of the Iraqi capital, according to a US military spokesman.
Belying earlier indications that coalition forces would make no headlong rush into Baghdad, some 30 US tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles rolled past knots of waving civilians and burned-out Iraqi tanks in a three-hour show of force through the city, before withdrawing.
"Where we find opportunities to move forward, we will move forward," said Capt. Frank Thorp, a US military spokesman at Central Command headquarters in Qatar.
Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf denied any coalition troops had entered Baghdad. "Everything is OK," he told reporters on Saturday morning. "They try to drop a few groups on the outskirts of the city. They do all this play to lessen the deadly pressure we have imposed on them."
Early reports from the US column spoke of one dead and four wounded in the incursion. Col. David Perkins, who led the column, estimated his men had killed 1,000 Iraqis before joining up with other US forces at the international airport southeast of the city.
Speaking to British Sky TV, Col. Perkins reported heavy antitank and small-arms fired against his armored vehicles, but none of the bitter urban warfare that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had threatened should US forces breach Baghdad's defenses.
Central Command Director of Operations Gen. Victor Renuart told reporter in Qatar that despite "pockets of very intense fighting," the raid had "sent a clear statement of the ability of coalition forces to move into Baghdad at times and places of their choosing."
"This is a glorified raid to create a psychological fracture" in the city's population, suggests Tim Ripley, a military analyst with the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies, currently in Qatar.
"The regime has been telling its people that the Americans are nowhere near," he adds. "By the mere fact of driving into the city, [the Americans] hope to sow the seeds of doubt and inspire an uprising without having to do any serious military stuff."
"I think that American intelligence about the city's defenses is probably better than one had thought," adds Maj. Gen. Patrick Cordingley, who commanded the British Desert Rats during the last Gulf War.
"These probing missions are not as reckless as they appear to be," he adds. "They are trying to verify information that they have before they do anything else."
"Now, we basically own the main road going into Baghdad. We've cut Baghdad in half," Perkins said. Though no US forces remained in the city, "we destroyed [Hussein's] defenses" along the route the column took, he said.
Dramatic film shot from the turret of a US tank, showing one destroyed Iraqi T-72 tank after another lining a street up which the Americans were advancing Saturday, easily trumped video aired by Iraqi TV Friday purporting to show a relaxed and smiling Saddam Hussein being mobbed by supporters in the streets of Baghdad.
President Hussein's whereabouts are apparently still unknown. US and Australian troops have cut off all the major roads out of the capital, except - reportedly - one road to the northeast along which thousands of Iraqi civilians were fleeing on Saturday morning, fearful of what might befall their homes.
The absence of more serious resistance to the US column surprised observers, many of whom had been warning that Iraqi forces, including the elite Special Republican Guard, would seek to draw coalition forces into the capital, home to five million people, so as to engage them in bloody house-to-house fighting.
That could still happen. "There may be significant battles ahead," Capt. Thorp cautioned. "This isn't over yet. There will be no celebration till we know the regime is gone."
"There are too many people in Baghdad whose jobs are at stake for them not to put up some sort of resistance," predicts Maj. Gen. Cordingley. "You cannot have one million people wrapped up in the [ruling] Baath Party without some of them wanting to fight to the end."
US commanders do not have enough men surrounding Baghdad to launch a traditional assault on the city, military analysts say, nor would they want to risk the number of civilian casualties that would inevitably result from street fighting.
Mystery continues to shroud the fate of tens of thousands of Republican Guard troops who US spokesmen had said were defending the southern approaches to Baghdad, but who put up very little resistance, according to allied reports.
While they might have simply abandoned their posts, changed into civilian clothes and gone home, as US commanders have been urging them to do, some of them might also have withdrawn into the capital to fight on in more unconventional ways.
The American drive into Baghdad, says Mr. Ripley, is "a high-risk, high-payoff" operation.