U.S. ground troops are making a major push on Baghdad from the south on two fronts and an American military spokesman says one of Iraq's elite Republican Guard divisions has been destroyed.
In what appears to be the beginning of the long-awaited ground assault on Baghdad, U.S. forces are moving toward the capital on two fronts.
Approaching from the southeast, U.S. Marines routed elements of the Baghdad Division of the Republican Guard near the city of Kut and seized a key bridge across the Tigris River.
Meanwhile, U.S. Army troops approached Baghdad from the southwest, attacking Republican Guard units near the city of Karbala.
Army Brigadier General Vincent Brooks says the Republican Guard's Baghdad Division has been "destroyed" in the latest fighting. He told reporters at a military briefing in Qatar that U.S. forces are poised to deliver a lethal blow to the regime of Saddam Hussein:
"We will approach Baghdad," he said. "The dagger is clearly pointed at the heart of the regime right now and will remain pointed at it until the regime is gone."
VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu, who is traveling with army troops as they push north toward Baghdad, described Republican Guard resistance as lighter than expected.
"I think there has been quite a bit of surprise at how little resistance they have met from these Republican Guard units that were supposed to have been guarding the gateway to Baghdad," she said. "They are not quite sure exactly what happened to those Republican Guard divisions, whether they have pulled back towards Baghdad and they are going to regroup within the city itself or whether they actually have been degraded to the point where they were not fighting."
Ground fighting has also been intense around the central Iraqi city of Najaf, where Iraqi troops have been firing at coalition forces from the sacred Ali Mosque.
General Brooks says U.S. troops have decided not to return fire out of respect for the religious significance of the Muslim holy site: "Coalition forces were disciplined, discriminating, and chose not to return fire against this mosque to keep it protected," General Brooks said. "The regime's use of the Ali Mosque for military purposes to trigger a coalition response is just the latest detestable example of the regime's strategy of deliberately putting sacred sites in danger."
Iraqi state television broadcast what it said Wednesday was a message from Saddam Hussein. It urged Iraqis to fight coalition troops. U.S. officials say his failure to appear on recent television broadcasts has cast new doubts on his whereabouts and physical condition.
Those senior Iraqi officials who do appear in public continue to maintain an air of defiance, despite the approaching coalition forces.
"They will not be able to reach Baghdad," said Iraq's Trade Minister, Mohammed Mehdi Salih. "They will be defeated before they come to Baghdad."
Back in Qatar, General Brooks also showed reporters a video clip of the rescue of U.S. Army Private Jessica Lynch, who had been taken prisoner by Iraqi forces on March 23. She was rescued in a commando raid on a hospital in Nasiriya. Coalition troops also recovered 11 bodies and forensic teams are trying to determine if they are U.S. troops.
On the diplomatic front, Secretary of State Colin Powell says Turkey has allowed the United States to use its territory to re-supply coalition troops operating in northern Iraq.
After a meeting with Turkish officials in Ankara, Mr. Powell told a news conference that the two countries have also agreed that Turkey will not send troops into northern Iraq at the present time.
"We are monitoring the situation closely, we have it under control, and therefore, at the moment, there is no need for any movement of Turkish forces across the border," Mr. Powell said. "We have agreed today that we will rapidly form a coordination committee so that we monitor this closely."
In London, the focus was on what Iraq will look like once the Saddam Hussein regime is defeated. British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Parliament that a post-war Iraq should make a quick transition to self-rule with the backing of the United Nations:
"And Iraq in the end should not be run by the Americans, it should not be run by the British, it should not be run by any outside force or power," Mr. Blair said. "It should be run, for the first time in decades, by the Iraqi people."
Finally, U.N. officials have identified more than $1 billion worth of relief supplies that are urgently needed by Iraqi civilians. But they say it may be difficult to get those supplies delivered quickly.