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April 2, 2003

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U.S. Forces Close in on Baghdad
U.S. Forces Cross Tigris River, Close in on Baghdad; Americans Hail Rescue of POW

The Associated Press

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Closing in on Baghdad itself, U.S. forces Wednesday seized a bridge over the Tigris River and swept past battered Republican Guard units. Soldiers on the front and relatives 6,000 miles away in West Virginia rejoiced over the bold rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch from captivity in an Iraqi hospital.

The Army's 3rd Infantry Division and the First Marine Expeditionary Corps both reported breakthroughs as some units entered the so-called "red zone" within 50 miles of the capital. U.S. officials say Iraqi resistance will be most tenacious in this zone and have warned of the possible use of chemical weapons.

In an attack launched at midnight, 3rd Infantry units surged past the strategic city of Karbala, targeting an estimated 2,000 paramilitary fighters. Karbala, which sits on the main approach to Baghdad from the southwest, was encircled and hit by night-long bombardment from U.S. artillery and warplanes.

To the east, thousands of Marines were moving against the city of Kut after capturing an important bridge over the Tigris River. The fall of Kut would open up a key highway approach to Baghdad from the southeast.

The Republican Guard's Medina Divisions around Karbala and its Baghdad Division around Kut are among the main military forces in the way of an American advance on Baghdad. U.S. defense officials say recent airstrikes and artillery barrages have reduced the strength of both divisions by more than 50 percent.

The commander of British forces in Iraq, Air Marshal Brian Burridge, confirmed that the latest assaults by his U.S. allies marked the start of a momentous phase of the war.

"This is certainly a decisive engagement in which we are now just beginning with the Republican Guard and it's an important step on the way," he said. "The point I would make, though, is that decisive phases often take time. I wouldn't want to give you the impression that within a day or two this is going to be finished."

Baghdad once again came under intense bombardment Wednesday, and once again the Iraqi government responded with defiance. Iraqi satellite television broadcast a statement attributed to Saddam Hussein declaring that "victory is at hand."

Saddam did not appear in person. U.S. officials say they are not sure whether is he alive and well, wounded from an air strike on one of his bunkers, or dead.

In addition to the reported success on the front lines, U.S. soldiers were elated by news that Lynch a prisoner of war from nine days had been rescued from an Iraqi hospital.

"I thought at first it was an April Fools joke," said her father, Greg Lynch Sr., of Palestine, W. Va. "I thought this was a cruel joke. I can put up with most things, but not that. They assured me, no, it's not a joke.

His 19-year-old daughter had been missing with 11 other U.S. soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company. They were was ambushed near Nasiriyah after making a wrong turn during early fighting in the invasion of Iraq. Five other members of her unit were later shown on Iraqi television answering questions from their Iraqi captors.

"We also have others, other POWs we are just as worried about," said U.S. Central Command spokesman Jim Wilkinson. "This is good news today but we need a lot more good news."

Amid the elation over Lynch's rescue, sobering new details were reported about an incident Monday in which members of an Iraqi family were killed when U.S. soldiers opened fire on their vehicle near a checkpoint.

A correspondent for the Knight-Ridder news service on Wednesday quoted surviving family members as saying they had decided to leave their village and flee toward U.S. lines because they thought a leaflet dropped by American helicopters told them to "be safe."

Bakhat Hassan who said he lost two daughters, a son, his parents, two older brothers, their wives and two nieces in the incident said U.S. soldiers at an earlier checkpoint had waved them through. As they approached another checkpoint 25 miles south of Karbala, they waved again at the American soldiers. Those soldiers fired.

"I saw the heads of my two little girls come off," said Hassan's wife, Lamea, 36.

U.S. officials originally gave the death toll as seven in the incident, while reporters at the scene placed it at 10. Hassan's father died at the Army hospital later; he said that made the toll 11.

In southern Iraq, British forces continued to skirmish with Iraqi defenders in the encircled city of Basra while hoping that civilians turn against those paramilitary fighters.

"We're getting a lot of assistance from the local population now but we're treading very carefully," Group Capt. Al Lockwood told Sky News TV. "It's important to us that the civilian population is protected and we reduce the damage to infrastructure as much as possible."

On the diplomatic front, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was meeting with Turkish officials Wednesday in an effort to repair the fractured relationship with NATO's only Muslim member. Some U.S. officials are questioning the usefulness of Turkey as an ally, noting its refusal to allow in U.S. ground troops to open a northern front against Iraq.

Highlighting the rift, the United States has begun pulling some 50 warplanes out of Incirlik air base in southern Turkey after it became clear that Turkey would not allow them to be used in an Iraq war. The planes had patrolled northern Iraq since after the 1991 Gulf War.

photo credit and caption:
Aviation ordnancemen assigned to the "Hunters" of Strike Fighter Squadron Two Zero One (VFA-201) upload two Computer Guided Bomb Unit Twelve (GBU-12) to an F/A-18C Hornet on the flight deck aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt in the eastern Mediterranean sea, Sunday, March 31, 2003. The aircraft carrier is conducting missions in supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. (AP Photo/Chris Thamann/MOD/Pool)

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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