President Bush has praised U.S.-led troops for moving a massive force hundreds of kilometers into Iraq over a matter of days, and said the course is now set for the last 200 meters. Mr. Bush spoke during a visit to a U.S. military base in North Carolina today. In Iraq, VOA Correspondent Deborah Block is embedded with U.S. forces. She told VOA News Now's Erin Brummett about the noticeable change in the momentum of the U.S. military push in Iraq.
Block: "Suddenly, over the last couple of days, there appears to be a big push among the military to move closer to Baghdad. In fact, a large convoy of marines today moved over a bridge across the Tigris River, past the town of An-Numaniya, after tanks, artillery and reconnaissance vehicles quickly pushed back the Iraqi troops. I could see smoke in the distance and was told some of it came from burning Iraqi military vehicles. Later, the unit I am with shot artillery outside a town past An-Numaniya, called Al-Kut, which reportedly was entrenched with Iraqi soldiers belonging to the Baghdad Division of the Republican Guards. But instead, I saw dozens of men walking along a road, who apparently were soldiers, because a number of them were still wearing their military boots and carrying clothes. I also saw numerous Iraqi uniforms discarded along the highway."
Brummett: "With those uniforms, did you see gas masks?"
Block: "No, I did not. I did not see any of the chemical protective suits or the gas masks. All that I saw were merely the Iraqi uniforms, many of which, as I said, had been discarded along the highway, and then, soon afterward, I saw men, dozens of them as I said, walking along the road, clearly happy to be walking back home."
Brummett: "You talked about there being apparently little resistance to the push that you were participating in over a bridge on the Tigris River. Do you know anything about whether the bridge had been mined or whether there were any other types of booby traps that the reconnaissance team and the advance team may have cleared before you crossed that bridge?"
Block: "No, I don't, Erin. I was not privy to that information. Although when the artillery group I was with crossed that bridge, there was certainly a lot of security carefully watching the area."
Brummett: "You talked about the last couple of days, all of a sudden it being evident that there is a push underway. Can you describe the momentum, the rate of the push? Would you describe it as a rapid movement or slow and steady? How would you gauge the speed of this push?"
Block: "I would call it a rapid movement compared to the last couple of weeks. It's clear that the U.S. military now is determined to push as quickly as possible toward Baghdad. As the convoy I am with goes along the road, you can certainly see a lot more destruction than I saw in the past, such as vehicles burning, other fires from an oil storage tank, that appeared on the side of the road, and more destruction than I have seen in the last couple of weeks as the units in general get closer to the Baghdad area. I also saw today some Iraqi POW's who were being guarded by marines. These were smaller groups at the side of the road that were being held. In many cases, however, the marines and other U.S. military let a lot of these soldiers go, if they don't seem to have any important information. Sometimes the only ones that they will hold on to are the officers that they feel might provide something important to them. Otherwise, a lot of these men are allowed to go home."
Brummett: "Now, of course, Baghdad being the ultimate goal of the U.S.-led military mission, Operation Iraqi Freedom, what have you been told to expect as you draw closer to Baghdad? Have you been given special instructions on preparations?"
Block: "Actually, Erin, at this point we have not been given any kind of special instructions. And in fact I cannot disclose at this time whether the unit is in fact even pressing towards Baghdad at all. However, I can say in general that it is obvious that U.S. forces are making a big push."