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Wednesday, April 2

U.S.-led forces push closer to Baghdad from 2 directions

By Sean Naylor and William McMichael | Military Times

Updated 1:44 a.m., April 3

NORTH OF KARBALA, Iraq - U.S. ground forces pushed closer to Baghdad from two directions Wednesday, successfully attacking divisions of Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard on their march to Iraq's capital city.

In fighting overnight Wednesday and into Thursday morning, an Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed and the Pentagon said seven on board were killed and four were wounded and rescued. Small arms fire may have brought down the transport copter. Also, an F/A-18C single seater from the carrier Kitty Hawk went down but the cause was uncertain. The whereabouts of the crew was unknown, the Pentagon said.

Earlier, 50 miles southwest of Baghdad, U.S. Army soldiers swept through the Karbala gap near the Euphrates River against little resistance. To the east, Marines fighting near the city of Kut, about 90 miles southeast of the capitol, destroyed the Baghdad division of the Republican Guard, according to officials in U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar.

``The dagger is clearly pointed at the heart of the regime right now and will remain pointed at it until the regime is gone,'' said Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, the U.S. Central Command spokesman.

Brooks said the Marine clash was part of a two-pronged attack on the outskirts of Baghdad that included an Army battle against divisions of the Republican Guard along the Euphrates River near Karbala.

Brooks said Army units also fought Iraqi paramilitary forces to clear the city of Najaf, 90 miles south of Baghdad, and were ``welcomed by thousands of citizens.'' But he said the units also were met by fire from Iraqi forces that had positioned themselves inside the Ali mosque, an important shrine to followers of Shiite Islam.

He cited the mosque incident as an example of Iraqi willingness to sacrifice civilians and landmarks in a bid to turn back U.S. forces. Brooks said American forces did not return fire into the mosque.

The Army's 3rd Infantry Division, meanwhile, met little resistance in its march toward Baghdad.

Commanders had been prepared to face a stiff defense, or even a counterattack, by the Republican Guard divisions positioned west and south of the capital. But no significant opposition materialized, even though the pace of the division's advance at times slowed to a few miles per hour.

``They didn't show up,'' Army Lt. Col. Terry Ferrell, said of the Republican Guard.

The Army and Air Force reported destroying scattered targets, including tanks, truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns and artillery throughout the day.

At a desert outpost that serves as V Corps Assault headquarters, commanders watched on a video feed as a Hunter aerial drone followed an Iraqi rocket artillery truck until it pulled next to a second launcher and an ammunition truck.

The screen then carried it live as the vehicles and their crews went up in smoke, bombed by an F-15 jet.

The heaviest fighting occurred at a bridge across the Euphrates. U.S. forces killed about 100 Iraqi soldiers fighting on foot, destroyed nine Iraqi armored personnel carriers and two reconnaissance vehicles, said Capt. Bill Brown, a Cavalry battle captain who followed the fight on the radio.In a firefight four miles west of the Euphrates, Ferrell's troops killed 20 Iraqi soldiers and destroyed air defense systems and mortar positions.And in a repeat of a celebrated incident from the 1991 Persian Gulf War, three Iraqi troops surrendered to U.S. Army helicopters flying over them near Karbala.

In 1991, the helicopters were AH-64 Apaches. This time, they were a pair of Ferrell's OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters, which had been shot at with small arms from a shack-like building in the desert, Ferrell said.

When the helicopter pilots returned fire with rockets, the three Iraqi soldiers emerged from the building with their hands up. One of the helicopters landed, the crew accepted their surrender, and a ground force was sent to round them up, Ferrell said.

The geography of the Karbala gap - a 4-mile-wide stretch of desert between the city of Karbala and the Buhayrat ar Razazah Lake - forced soldiers into a narrow channel. It was considered one of the most likely spots for the Iraqis to use chemical or biological weapons against U.S. forces.

The soldiers passed through the gap wearing protective jackets, trousers and rubber boots in temperatures that climbed into the 90s. There was no chemical attack, but Ferrell wasn't relaxing as he watched the sun set Wednesday.

``We were prepared for it, and the day's not over,'' he said.

In Najaf, troopers from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) moved cautiously through residential neighborhoods, according to Army Times staff writer Matthew Cox, who accompanied the soldiers. They found abandoned fighting positions.

``Somehow they knew we were coming,'' said 2nd Lt. Gary Bartels, 27, of Kountze, Texas, explaining that nearby civilians had told an interpreter that small groups of militants were fleeing just ahead of U.S. forces.

Soldiers discovered two housing compounds and six new sport utility vehicles loaded with weapons, Iraqi and U.S. military uniforms, gas masks and satellite communications gear, assault rifles, a machine gun and ammunition. They also discovered a small mansion that contained maps as well as uniforms and insignia of a high-ranking Iraqi military official. Soldiers detained 44 men.

In and around Baghdad, fliers bombed tanks, artillery, fuel trucks and surface-to-air missile sites, in preparation for the expected invasion of the city.

Rear Adm. Barry Costello, commander of the Constellation Carrier Battle Group, said he'd seen reports that the strikes were so effective that Iraqi forces in the north of Baghdad were being moved to the south.

(Contributing: Steve Komarow, USA TODAY)