WASHINGTON - American forces drove within sight of Baghdad's skyline yesterday after defeating two Iraqi divisions guarding the approach to the capital, U.S. officials said.
What appeared to be a rout of some of Iraq's better trained army units, the Republican Guard, allowed lead elements of the American invasion force to push to less than 20 miles from Baghdad's outskirts. U.S. bombers blasted targets between the advancing ground forces and the southern city limits, preparing the way for a final thrust on the metropolis of 5.5 million Iraqis.
"The dagger is clearly pointed at the heart of the regime right now and will remain pointed at it until the regime is gone," said Brig Gen. Vincent Brooks at U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar.
But as the war entered its third week, there were no indications that Saddam Hussein's government was preparing to give up. The regime still effectively controls most of the cities, including the second-largest, Basra, near the Persian Gulf coast in southern Iraq, where nearly two weeks of fighting between British forces and Iraqi paramilitaries has led to a virtual standoff.
U.S. officials reported few casualties in the stepped-up fighting south of Baghdad. But last night came word that an Army Black Hawk helicopter had been shot down near Karbala, the scene of fierce fighting yesterday, killing seven and injuring the four remaining crew members, who were rescued.
Iraq also shot down a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet near Karbala with a surface-to-air missile yesterday, military officials said.
There was no immediate word on the fate of the pilot. Statements released from U.S. Central Command said the twin-engine jet, flying from the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, went down at about 3:45 p.m. EST. It was the first American airplane shot down during the war on Iraq.
In Najaf, U.S. forces claimed progress in reducing opposition from guerrilla-style paramilitary fighters. There were scenes of ordinary Iraqis celebrating the arrival of American soldiers - pictures notably absent during the opening weeks of the war, to the disappointment and surprise of Bush administration policymakers.
Pentagon officials acknowledged that Iraq's military officers in Baghdad are still in command of their armed forces. Hussein's government also maintains an effective air defense over a portion of the capital, they said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld predicted "dangerous days ahead" as U.S. forces prepared to engage three more Republican Guard divisions that "pretty much ring Baghdad at the present time."
Rumsfeld said also that U.S. intelligence had overheard "chatter" by Iraqi forces about the use of chemical weapons. The danger that nerve gas or other chemical agents might be employed against American soldiers is expected to increase the closer that U.S. forces get to the center of Baghdad, military officials said.
In Iraq, new statements in Hussein's name were read on state television. One of them urged Kurds in northern Iraq not to cooperate with U.S. forces. Another, promising Iraqis that the invaders would soon be vanquished, proclaimed that "victory is at hand."
Hussein's whereabouts, however, remained a deepening mystery. Iraqi television showed footage of him, in military uniform, meeting with advisers, but there was no way to tell when it had been taken. Hussein has not been heard from in more than a week, and there are questions about whether he survived a U.S. bomb strike on March 20.
As American forces drove on the capital, the final thrust at Baghdad's gates appeared to be growing near. Some units reported that they were advancing much faster, and meeting lighter resistance than U.S. Army and Marine commanders on the ground had expected.
Soldiers from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division were reported to be on the verge of seizing Saddam International Airport on Baghdad's western edge.
American officials stopped short, however, of saying that the battle of Baghdad had actually begun. And they indicated that grinding urban warfare could follow, once U.S. soldiers reach the city limits.
Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the United States is "expecting, or at least planning for, a very difficult fight ahead. We are not expecting to drive into Baghdad suddenly and seize it" in a surprise attack.
Washington's caution contrasted with the ebullience of U.S. military officials in the Persian Gulf, who sounded unusually upbeat as they provided the first details of the battlefield action. Their renewed confidence followed days of defensiveness over highly publicized second-guessing, on the battlefield and back home, from critics who questioned everything from the concept of the war plan to the size and timing of the U.S. deployment.
At a Centcom briefing, Brooks said it would be "premature" to gauge the fighting strength of the remaining Republican Guard divisions guarding Baghdad - "other than to say they are in serious trouble. And they're mainly in contact right now with the most powerful force on Earth."
Separately, one U.S. official was quoted by the Associated Press as estimating the effectiveness of the four remaining Guard divisions at 70 percent of normal or less.
Throughout the day, sporadic, often intense fighting raged across a 75-mile swath south of the capital, stretching from the brown desert southwest of Baghdad across the verdant flood plains of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
U.S. officials said the Baghdad division of the Republican Guard, which had reportedly been strengthened with two tank divisions in recent days, has been "destroyed," or rendered incapable of fighting, by the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force near Kut, on the Tigris, about 100 miles southeast of Baghdad.
The Medina division was defeated by armor, artillery and air power from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division in fighting near the Euphrates River city of Karbala, about 50 miles south-southwest of the capital. The battle began in the dead of a moonless night, as artillery shells and airstrikes by U.S. and British jets pounded Iraqi defensive positions in the city and ground forces advanced.
By noon, columns of U.S tanks, mobile artillery units and armored personnel carriers had rumbled past the city and poured through the Karbala gap, bearing down, across the desert, on the outer reaches of Baghdad.
It appeared that the U.S. forces were preparing to squeeze, and possible encircle, Baghdad from opposite sides, with the Army approaching from the west and the Marines uniting their forces for an approach on the east.
U.S. officials said it was unclear whether Republican Guard soldiers were falling back into the capital and preparing for urban combat. Hussein's best-trained soldiers, an elite security guard of 20,000 known as the Special Republican Guard, and thousands of paramilitary fighters known as Saddam's Fedayeen, are already believed to be stationed inside Baghdad.
There was no sign of chemical weapons, but the tens of thousands of Americans pushing toward Baghdad prepared for its possible use as they crossed the symbolic "Red Line," 50 miles from the center of the capital.
Fighting also continued in a number of southern Iraq cities largely bypassed by U.S. forces on their 300-mile road to Baghdad.
In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, U.S. officials said that Iraqi fighters holed up inside the Ali Mosque, an important shrine, were firing on American soldiers.
Rising temperatures were forecast, complicating the task for U.S. forces, especially if they are forced to don stifling chemical suits. But the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, who went to Capitol Hill yesterday to brief members of Congress, noted that U.S. forces could fight at night, when temperatures would be somewhat lower and their night-vision gear provides a tactical advantage.
Overall U.S. and British casualties remain light, by historical standards. A total of 49 Americans have been killed, seven captured, 15 missing and 154 wounded. Those figures, however, lag behind the actual toll, because the Pentagon releases information only after family members are notified. Among British troops, 27 dead, none missing or captured.
Iraq does not release battlefield casualty figures. The government says that more than 600 civilians have been killed since the war began, though there is no independent verification. At least 4,500 Iraqis are being held as prisoners of war by U.S.-led forces.
The remains of 11 people, at least some believed to be Americans, were found during Tuesday's daring rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who had been held by Iraqi paramilitary forces in Nasiriyah, officials said.
Lynch was airlifted to a military hospital in Germany yesterday, where she is being treated for injuries that, according to family members, include broken legs, an injured arm and multiple gunshot wounds.