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U.S. Forces Seize Southern Routes To Baghdad, Stop Outside Capitol

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Peter Baker
THE WASHINGTON POST -- kuwait city

Meeting only light resistance, U.S. forces charged up to the outskirts of Baghdad Thursday and fought their way into Saddam International Airport, just 12 miles from the center of the blacked-out Iraqi capital.

Forward elements of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, having captured the southern side of the vast facility stretching across flat suburbs southwest of the city, battled early Friday with Iraqi soldiers holding out with small arms in the northern part, U.S. military officials said. Iraqi officials, desperate to hold onto the airport and its modern terminal, used loudspeakers to exhort nearby residents to join in the defense, reports from the area said, but it wasn’t clear whether anyone heeded the call.

Other units from the 3rd Infantry approached Baghdad from a more southerly direction, driving up a four-lane highway and plowing through the sandy desert before stopping about 10 miles from the edge, well within sight of the bomb-scarred skyline and sprawling outer suburbs. Regiments of the 1st Marine Division, meanwhile, closed in from the southeast, rushing up a highway along the Tigris River, decimating an Iraqi tank battalion and eventually halting within 15 miles of the capital.

With thousands of U.S. soldiers and armored vehicles arrayed in an arc around the city’s southern rim, the 15-day-old military campaign to destroy President Saddam Hussein’s three-decade-old rule shifted into a crucial and dangerous phase -- the battle for control of the capital, its 5 million residents, Saddam’s seat of government and his most loyal Baath Party defenders.

U.S. commanders, whose troops have sliced through southern and central Iraq with minimal resistance and relatively few casualties, now must decide whether to lay siege to the city in hopes that residents will rise up, push into the center to engage in urban warfare, or try a combination of encirclement and targeted raids to whittle down Saddam’s grip on power.

The unexpectedly swift advance Thursday, sweeping through terrain that was supposed to be defended by Iraq’s best-trained Republican Guard divisions, prompted triumphal comments from U.S. officials. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said U.S. forces are closer to Baghdad’s center “than many Americans are from their downtown offices” and President Bush, speaking at Camp Lejeune, N.C., proclaimed that “a vise is closing” around Saddam.

“Having traveled hundreds of miles, we will now go the last 200 yards,” Bush said on a visit to meet with families of Marines killed in Iraq. “The course is set. We’re on the advance. Our destination is Baghdad. And we will accept nothing less than complete and final victory.”

Conspicuously absent from the battlefield were significant concentrations of Republican Guard soldiers or any use of chemical or biological weapons as U.S. commanders had feared. The commanders said intense American and British airstrikes had crushed two of the six Guard divisions guarding the capital and severely damaged two others, clearing the way for a relatively unobstructed push toward the capital.

Although some U.S. military officials claimed the 70,000-soldier Republican Guard was a largely broken force, other American defense officials warned that Guard units still could pose a threat to U.S. troops massing outside Baghdad.