Military officials say a U.S. armored column has made the first large-scale incursion into the center of Baghdad, while the commander of the coalition air campaign says most of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard divisions outside the Iraqi capital have been destroyed.
About 30 tanks and armored vehicles rolled into Baghdad and swept from a southern suburb to the city's center and then west to Baghdad's main airport.
U.S. troops exchanged fire with Iraqi forces during the incursion, and some reports say hundreds of Iraqis were killed.
The coalition's director of operations, Major General Gene Renuart, indicated the purpose of the operation was to prove coalition forces can move into the Iraqi capital when they need to. "It was, I think, a clear statement of the ability of the coalition forces to move into Baghdad at times and places of their choosing and establish their presence, really, wherever they need to in the city," he said.
VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu, who is with U.S. troops on the outskirts of Baghdad, spoke with some of the soldiers who entered the city. "They carried out a four-hour attack into Baghdad Saturday, and they tell me they have encountered very heavy resistance from whom they believe are members of Saddam Hussein's personal army, the Special Republican Guard and the Fedayeen paramilitary forces," said Alisha Ryu.
Ms. Ryu says this is the first time coalition troops have fought the Special Republican Guards and the Fedayeen inside Baghdad. "The soldiers in the units say dozens of armed Iraqis, believed to be Special Republican Guards, were shooting at them from rooftops of buildings with rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft weapons," she said. "Down on the ground, they often found members of the Fedayeen paramilitary militia. This is the first time that these Fedayeen military forces have been seen inside Baghdad. U.S. troops described a street corner in Baghdad as being heavily sandbagged into defensive positions. And U.S. troops say the Iraqi troops certainly were expecting coalition forces to move into the city, and appear to have planned this defense."
Despite evidence that U.S. forces are in control of Baghdad's main airport, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf claims Iraqi soldiers are routing coalition troops. "We have crushed them in the place of Saddam International Airport," said Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf. "We have pushed them outside the whole area. We are surrounding them and pounding them heavily by artillery and missile strikes."
A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command says the coalition is in control of the airport, and one of the runways should be usable soon.
U.S. soldiers surrounding Baghdad have encountered less than expected resistance from the Republican Guard, thought to be Saddam Hussein's best equipped and most motivated fighters.
The commander of the coalition's air war, Lieutenant General T. Michael Moseley, spoke to reporters at the Pentagon via telephone from his headquarters in Saudi Arabia.
He says planes are now flying around-the-clock missions, designed to prepare for any future ground attack on the Iraqi capital.
General Moseley says massive coalition air power has crushed most of the Republican Guard units near Baghdad. "I will tell you up front that our sensors show that the preponderance of the Republican Guard divisions that are outside of Baghdad are now dead," said General Moseley. "We have laid on these people. I found it interesting when folks say we are softening them up. We are not softening them up, we are killing them."
But General Moseley warns that not all Republican Guard soldiers have been killed, and some may still resist as coalition forces enter Baghdad.
He says the air support plan for Baghdad calls for "forward airborne controllers over the city 24 hours a day and multiple sets of fighters with multiple munitions options."
The general cautioned that Baghdad's air defenses have been badly degraded, but not obliterated.
Meanwhile, President Bush said in his Saturday radio address the war in Iraq proves the evil of Saddam Hussein's regime.
"In combat, Saddam's thugs shield themselves with women and children," said President Bush. "They have killed Iraqi citizens who welcome coalition troops, and they have forced other Iraqis into battle by threatening to torture or kill their families. They have executed prisoners of war, waged attacks under the white flag of truce, and concealed combat forces in civilian neighborhoods, schools, hospitals and mosques. In this war, the Iraqi regime is terrorizing its own citizens, doing everything possible to maximize Iraqi civilian casualties, and then to exploit the deaths they have caused for propaganda."
President Bush promised the war will liberate the Iraqi people and take weapons of mass destruction from the hands of mass killers.
Mr. Bush pledged that no crime will divert the coalition from its mission, and that "village by village, city by city, liberation is coming" to the Iraqi people.