WASHINGTON -- A column of U.S. tanks rolled into the heart of downtown Baghdad early today and American troops seized a sprawling presidential palace compound along the Tigris River, the Information Ministry and a major hotel, according to reports from the scene.
Loud explosions were heard and a huge cloud of black smoke rose over the palace as a small number of dark-clad Iraqi soldiers were seen on television running along the west bank of the river. Some Iraqis were reported to have jumped into the river, attempting to flee.
The incursion signaled that U.S. forces intended to take control of the center of the capital in what could amount to the final drive to topple the regime of President Saddam Hussein.
The 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division entered the city at 6 a.m., moving up Highway 8 and meeting only moderate resistance, mostly from infantry firing assault weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, the Associated Press reported.
Col. David Perkins told his troops before the operation that the mission was intended to be "a dramatic show of force" to demonstrate that U.S. forces can enter Baghdad at any time, anywhere, according to the AP.
The incursion today was the most daring U.S. military move since Saturday, when a long column of tanks made a three-hour strike deep into the city
Yesterday, despite pockets of Iraqi resistance, U.S. forces claimed control of all major roads into and out of Baghdad, and demonstrated sufficient command of the capital to land a large military cargo plane at the city's international airport.
A day after a violent three-hour incursion into Baghdad by scores of American armored vehicles that U.S. officials said left about 2,000 Iraqi dead, a senior Pentagon official cautioned that while Iraq's Republican Guard has been badly damaged, there is "still fight left" and potentially difficult combat ahead.
Rather than plunge into the city of 5 million, U.S.-led forces were attempting to encircle Baghdad. Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated that troops would stage rapid raids to destroy Baghdad's defenses while maintaining around-the-clock bombardment of Iraqi forces that emerge to fight.
Early today, the Associated Press reported that U.S. troops seized key buildings in the center of the Iraqi capital, including a major presidential palace and the Information Ministry.
Reporters saw tanks roll into the heart of Baghdad on the western side of the Tigris River, which divides the city. Also occupied was the Al-Rashid Hotel.
In the southern city of Nasiriyah, U.S.-led forces airlifted soldiers of an Iraqi exile group, which Pace called the nucleus of a future Iraqi army, to serve as humanitarian liaison officers and help root out Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's paramilitary fighters among the population.
There were no major allied incursions into Baghdad yesterday, though probes were reported amid a day of progress and one notable setback.
The specter of Iraqi possession of chemical weapons hovered over yesterday's actions. An account by a Knight-Ridder reporter accompanying the 101st Airborne Division said dozens of U.S. soldiers were evacuated last night from an Iraqi military compound after a mobile laboratory confirmed the existence of the nerve agent sarin.
However, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Qatar, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Owens, said that after checking, he could not confirm the report.
"We're aware of the Knight-Ridder story. We have no reports of that -- nothing to confirm it," Owens said.
U.S. officials have said repeatedly that they are certain that Iraq possesses chemical and biological weapons, but they have not been used in the conflict.
In the north, American officials acknowledged that U.S. aircraft were probably to blame for the mistaken "friendly fire" bombing of a convoy carrying U.S. Special Forces and Kurdish fighters. Kurds reported 18 of their soldiers dead and more than 45 wounded, including the son and brother of Massoud Barzani, one of the two top Kurdish leaders. One U.S. soldier was reportedly injured.
In the south, British troops made their largest incursion yet into Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. Three British solders were killed. The fall of the city appeared imminent.
U.S. forces gained control of the center of Karbala, a Shiite holy city 50 miles south of Baghdad, and were reported to be mingling easily with residents who came out in large numbers to greet them. One American soldier was killed and seven wounded in two days of fighting.
In the western part of the country, a convoy carrying Russia's ambassador to Iraq came under fire after it left Baghdad and headed out of the country. It was unclear who fired on the convoy, which continued on even though three diplomats were reportedly hurt, one seriously.
At an Iraqi training base outside Salman Pak, a town 20 miles from Baghdad, U.S. Marines found the rusted shell of an old passenger jet that they speculated had been used for hijacking practice. A military spokesman said the camp "reinforces the likelihood of links between [Hussein's] regime and external terrorist organizations."
Continued fighting throughout the country prompted United Nations relief officials to warn of a mounting health crisis, with hospitals cut off from new medical supplies and health workers overwhelmed.
Shedding light on the American strategy for taking Baghdad, Pace said on ABC's This Week that "military commanders will slowly but surely take on various parts of the city, go in and clean it out."
"It is certainly true that we have huge amounts of combat power around the city right now, and that we have over a thousand planes in the air every day. So, if it moves on the ground and it takes aggressive action, it's going to get killed," Pace said.
While saying that American troops had not totally sealed off the capital, Pace told CNN: "We do control the highways [leading] in and out of the city and do have the capability to interdict, to stop, to attack any Iraqi military forces that might try to either escape or to engage our forces."
Yesterday's landing of a C-130 military cargo plane at Baghdad's international airport marked a symbolic show of control over the airfield, which was seized with little Iraqi resistance on Friday.
It also demonstrated that U.S. forces are now able to fly in troops, supplies and equipment for what may be a climactic battle to destroy the Hussein's regime. CNN reported that the large aircraft carried troops and equipment. It is capable of hauling small helicopters and armored vehicles.
In a new attempt to get Iraqi military leaders to surrender and thus prevent or reduce what could be bloody battles to come, Pace said that any commanders outside of an "important dozen or so" regime leaders could still give up and save themselves.
"There's a small clique around Saddam Hussein who are the perpetrators of all the crimes against humanity. Below them are many senior leaders and troops who have the free will to decide what their life is going to be like. They can surrender and become part of a future free Iraq or they can fight and die," Pace said.
As of yesterday, however, there was no sign of high-level surrenders as Iraqi resistance continued in the western suburbs of Baghdad between the city center and the airport. The BBC, which has a reporter with the 3rd Infantry Division, reported "fierce fighting" in the area, with Iraqis firing heavy artillery and American troops responding with mortar, artillery and rockets.
Hopes that coalition forces had killed one of the most notoriously brutal of Hussein's henchman, Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majid, remained unconfirmed yesterday as British troops sifted through the rubble and human remains after Saturday's air attack on the house in Basra where he was believed to be staying. A dead bodyguard was reportedly found. Al-Majid is known as "Chemical Ali" for ordering the gassing of thousands of Kurds during the 1980s.
Meanwhile, in a development that could have international repercussions, a force of 500 or more lightly armed Iraqi exiles moved into southern Iraq to work with American units.
The presence of the Iraqi force was announced from Nasiriyah by Ahmad Chalaby, head of the Iraqi National Congress, a major exile group that lobbied Washington for years to take on Hussein.
"We are proud to contribute our forces to Operation Iraqi Freedom," Chalaby said in a statement.
The exile force, called 1st Battalion Free Iraqi Forces, will operate under U.S. command and help to deliver humanitarian aid and keep order, the statement said.
Pace said, "These are Iraqi citizens who want to fight for a free Iraq, who will become basically the core of the new Iraqi army once Iraq is free." He put their number at 500, while the INC statement said 700 had been deployed and that their numbers were expected to increase.
Until yesterday, the only Iraqis fighting alongside Americans were Kurds in northern Iraq who are working with U.S. Special Forces.
Chalaby, who has close ties to senior officials at the Pentagon and numerous supporters on Capitol Hill, is distrusted by some CIA and State Department officials who had previously blocked INC plans to declare a provisional Iraqi government in exile.
Pace said Chalaby's arrival in southern Iraq did not mean that his group of exiles would gain a favored role in forming a post-Hussein government.
President Bush has put the Pentagon in charge of setting up a temporary government in Iraq, but has resisted appeals from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to declare a provisional government in areas outside Baghdad that have fallen to U.S. and British forces.
Bush is to leave today for talks in Northern Ireland with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has pressed for the United Nations to be given a key role in a post-Hussein Iraq.
While U.S. officials oppose the idea of having the United Nations administer Iraq, the level of involvement by the world body remains a source of disagreement between the State and Defense departments, and between the United States and many other countries, including those who will be asked to help pay for postwar reconstruction.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, one of the INC's champions within the U.S. government, said yesterday that there was no predetermined choice of who would eventually lead Iraq.
"We can't say that anyone should take a leading role," he said. "By definition, if you're going to have a government, or even a transitional authority, that represents the legitimate views of the Iraqi people, it's the Iraqi people themselves that have to decide."
He did not deny reports that former CIA Director James Woolsey, one of Washington's most vocal hawks, was slated for an advisory post in the temporary Iraqi government.
Wolfowitz stressed that American military forces are "not occupiers" and "not colonizers," but acknowledged that it would take more than six months for an Iraqi government to be created to run the country.
Pace, seated beside the deputy secretary on NBC's Meet the Press, said the military would have to remain in Iraq long enough, and with enough strength, to ensure a "stable environment."
After destroying a Republican Guard headquarters yesterday, Marines found intelligence material, part of an ever-growing cache that may help U.S. officials develop a fuller picture of Hussein's rule.