Advance elements of American forces are reported to be within the southern limits of Baghdad, as the Iraqi capital was plunged into darkness Thursday night for the first time since the war to topple Saddam Hussein began.
Correspondents traveling with the U.S. Army's third Infantry Division report encountering artillery fire from entrenched Iraqi positions as they raced toward Baghdad.
Advance U.S. forces are now on Baghdad's southern approach, preparing to take the main road that leads into the Iraqi capital. With them is VOA's Alisha Ryu, who reports troops have now entered the southern limits of Baghdad. "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 number one and highway number nine, 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, battled past Iraqi artillery fire, launching an attack on Baghdad's main International Airport. "They are working on securing it. And they will have some sort of mop up operation they believe, within the next few hours and they are fairly confident they will have the airport within their security perimeters by morning," she said.
Capturing the airport would allow allied troops and materiel to be flown in near the frontlines, greatly relieving existing supply lines that now stretch all the way back to Kuwait, which have been the target of attack by Iraqi militias.
At Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Thursday, President Bush said a vise is closing on Baghdad, as Marines approach the city from the southeast and soldiers from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division move in from the southwest. "Having traveled hundreds of miles, we will now go the last 200 yards," he said.
But Iraq's Information Minister Mohammed al-Sahaf denied coalition forces 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."
Thursday's second consecutive day of rapid advances toward Baghdad again left coalition commanders wondering why Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard units were not putting up more of a defense. General Vincent Brooks at U.S. Central Command was uncertain whether Iraqi forces were simply running away, repositioning or were no longer receiving battle orders. "We can't tell who's in charge. I don't think the Iraqi people can tell who's in charge either. And we have indications that the Iraqi forces don't know who's in charge," said General Brooks.
For the first time since the start of the war, a power cut plunged Baghdad into darkness Thursday night. U.S. military commanders said they did not target the city's power system and Iraq offered no explanation either. 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.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld again called on top Iraqi military commanders not to carry out Saddam Hussein's orders. "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.
Overnight, waves of coalition air strikes continued to pound targets in Baghdad with one correspondent in the city reporting as many as a hundred explosions heard in the early hours of Friday morning. Heavy air strikes were also reported in Basra in the south and near Iraqi front line forces in northern Iraq, where far fewer coalition forces are on the ground.