Members of India Company of the 3rd Battalion

Members of India Company of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines watch from a distance as U.S. artillery rounds are fired at Iraqi bunkers. Marines captured the city of Numaniyah with little resistance. (Sun photo by John Makely / April 1, 2003)

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."