U.S. forces are attacking the international airport on the outskirts of Baghdad and battling Iraqi troops defending the capital. As allied troops advance toward the city proper, U.S. military officials say there is increasing evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime is losing control of both the Iraqi military and the civilian population.
Loud explosions were reported on the southwest outskirts of Baghdad near Saddam Hussein International Airport. In addition, large parts of the Iraqi capital were plunged into darkness late Thursday, though U.S. military officials say they did not target Baghdad's power grid.
U.S. troops made quick advances on the capital Thursday, and Army Brigadier General Vincent Brooks told reporters at Central Command headquarters in Qatar that there are increasing signs that the Saddam Hussein regime is losing control of both the Iraqi military and the civilian population. "We can't tell who is in charge," said General Brooks. "I don't think the Iraqi people can tell who is in charge either. And we have indications that the Iraqi forces don't know who is in charge."
Although U.S. troops have faced lighter than expected resistance from Iraq's vaunted Republican Guard divisions, there are concerns that some Republican Guard units may have retreated into Baghdad with the hope of engaging coalition troops in urban warfare.
In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that some difficult days lie ahead. But he also had a message for the Iraqi military. "For the senior leadership, there is no way out," he said. "Their fate has been sealed by their actions. The same is not true for the Iraqi armed forces. Iraqi officers and soldiers can still survive and help to rebuild a free Iraq, if they do the right thing."
Secretary Rumsfeld also said there was no chance the United States would agree to any arrangement that would halt the war and allow Saddam Hussein to survive.
Meanwhile, President Bush gave an upbeat assessment of the war Thursday in a speech at a U.S. Marine base in North Carolina. "We are on the advance," said President Bush. "Our destination is Baghdad, and we will accept nothing less than complete and final victory."
The president went to Camp Lejeune to comfort relatives of some of the Marines who have been killed in the fighting in Iraq.
In other battlefield developments, U.S. officials say special operations forces raided a presidential palace about 90 kilometers north of Baghdad that has been used by Saddam Hussein and his two sons. U.S. troops did not find any Iraqi leaders there, but did seize some documents.
In London, British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told parliament that British troops have now taken key suburbs around the southern city of Basra.
U.S. officials are also investigating two potential friendly fire incidents. One involved a Navy F/A-18 fighter jet that may have been brought down by a U.S. Patriot missile near Karbala. The other involved a coalition warplane that may have fired on coalition troops on the ground.
Even with U.S. troops on their doorstep, Iraqi government officials are still attempting to deny coalition gains. Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed al-Sahaf told reporters in Baghdad that there are no coalition forces within 150 kilometers of the capital. "They are not in any place" he said. "They hold no place in Iraq. This is an illusion."
As coalition forces close in on Baghdad, discussions are intensifying in diplomatic circles about what happens to Iraq once the shooting stops.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met with officials from NATO and the European Union in Brussels Thursday, as part of an effort to build international consensus on plans for post-war Iraq. "We now must move forward and align ourselves again with the need to serve the Iraqi people" said Colin Powell. "The people of Iraq deserve a government that is responsive to its needs, that reflects all of the dreams and hopes and aspirations of the Iraqi people."
Secretary Powell says the United States will seek a partnership with the United Nations to rebuild Iraq once the Saddam Hussein regime is toppled.