Advance elements of American forces are now reported to have reached the southern outskirts of Baghdad, as the Iraqi capital was plunged into darkness for the first time since the war to topple Saddam Hussein began two weeks ago. Correspondents embedded with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division report encountering artillery fire from dug in Iraqi positions as they raced toward Baghdad, laying siege to the city's main airport along the way.
U.S. forces are now on Baghdad's southern approach, preparing to take the main road that leads into the Iraqi capital. With the U.S. army is VOA's Alisha Ryu, who reports troops have now entered Baghdad's southern limits.
"They have pushed into the outskirts of Baghdad, seizing a key intersection in the southern part of the city," she said. "It's called Highway No. 1 one and Highway No. 9, it's a very important junction that leads straight into downtown Baghdad."
She reports at least one American and numerous Iraqis were killed as U.S. forces, backed by columns of tanks and armored vehicles, made their way past Iraqi artillery fire, with no strong resistance from Republican Guard units. Local people told advancing Marines they saw Iraqi forces withdrawing toward Baghdad, where they may be waiting for a fight yet to come.
For the first time since the start of the war, a power cut plunged much of Baghdad into darkness Thursday around the time that the country's Information Minister Mohammed al-Sahaf was denying U.S. and British troops were anywhere near the Iraqi capital. "They are not even a hundred miles or whatever," he said. "They are not in anyplace. They hold no place in Iraq. This is an illusion."
What caused Baghdad's power blackout is not known. At the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Richard Myers had no explanation. "Central Command has not targeted the power grid in Baghdad," he said.
That left the possibility that Iraqi authorities may have turned the power off themselves. Shortly after the lights went out, U.S. Central Command in Qatar said it had reason to believe the Iraqi military may be about to bomb several of Baghdad's Shiite neighborhoods and then blame the resulting casualties on American air strikes.
At the Pentagon Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld again called on top Iraqi military commanders not to carry out orders from Saddam Hussein.
"I must say however, that given the conduct of the Iraqi regime, it increasingly seems that Iraq is running out of real soldiers and soon all that will be left are war criminals," he said.
Waves of coalition air strikes continued to pound targets in Baghdad throughout the day Thursday and into the evening, after special operations forces raided one of Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces outside the capital. State television showed footage of the Iraqi leader appearing calm, meeting with senior ministers, amid continuing uncertainty about where he is and whether he is still in a position of command and control.
"There is increasing evidence that the regime can not control its forces or the Iraqi population in most of the country," said U.S. General Vincent Brooks.
But Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz says he met with Saddam Hussein on Wednesday, and told Italian television he is in good shape and in full control.