U.S. ground forces in Iraq have crossed the Euphrates River, entering an area that leads directly to the capital, Baghdad. But U.S. military commanders say the troops could also be within striking distance of Saddam Hussein's artillery shells, which they fear could be filled with deadly chemicals.
The 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division crossed the Euphrates River. M-1 tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles came under fire from Iraqi forces as they rumbled across the desert and over the bridge. U.S. Air Force A-10 Ground Attack aircraft called "Warthogs" provided the "3-7" with close air support.
Iraqi forces destroyed the bridge with explosives shortly after another 3rd Infantry Division crossed over.
But as U.S. military units move closer to Baghdad, commanders are growing increasingly concerned that Iraq could use chemical weapons against U.S. troops.
U.S. Army 5th Corps chemical officer Major Daniel Goodale-Porter said battle planners believe Saddam Hussein has in place what they are calling "The Red Line."
"The Red Line is a physical line that we draw on the map that we think Saddam Hussein and his folks are going to feel pressured enough to actually use weapons of mass destruction," he said.
The line is a circle, an area roughly 50 kilometers outside the capital. The thinking at this forward Army Command Center is that as soon as U.S. troops cross that line, Saddam Hussein could order his troops to fire chemical weapons. Some places within the circle are heavily populated.
Major Goodale-Porter says the U.S. military concern about chemical warfare extends beyond its troops.
"Civilians do not have any protective equipment, they are not trained, they do not know how to act, so there is a potential for a lot of civilian casualties," he said.
The latest intelligence shows some units of Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guards moving heavy rocket artillery, and reinforcing fighting positions in areas southwest of Baghdad.
U.S. military commanders say the movement of artillery indicates that troops may already be in place. The troops are most likely from the Medina Unit of the Republican Guard, one of the main targets for the U.S. military in the campaign to remove Saddam Hussein from power.