U.S. tanks surge into central Baghdad, seize key buildings

BAGHDAD – U.S. troops seized key buildings in the heart of the Iraqi capital Monday, including a major presidential palace on the Tigris River, and were said to be closing on the Information Ministry and the Al-Rashid Hotel.

The U.S. military operation now underway in Baghdad is a „show of force” that sends a powerful message to the Iraqi regime but not necessarily the much anticipated „battle for Baghdad,” a Pentagon official said. „This was a show of force, an operation designed to demonstrate U.S. resolve that involves increased visibility of U.S. forces,” a spokesman told reporters. „It sends a powerful message to the regime that we can go wherever we want when we want,” but calling it the „battle for Baghdad is a hyperbole that is not appropriate at this point,” he said. Another spokesman said the „goal of this is not to take ground. This is an armored raid through the city… There’s a lot of tough battles ahead.” Also Monday, two U.S. Marines were killed and many were injured in fighting to secure two bridges over a river on the edge of Baghdad, key objectives for U.S. forces advancing on the city, the U.S. military said. Troops took control of President Saddam Hussein’s main presidential palace in Baghdad and entered another, the U.S. military said. „We have seized the main presidential palace in downtown Baghdad,” Lieutenant Colonel Pete Bayer told Reuters. The Information Ministry and the Foreign Ministry, however, were still firmly in Iraqi hands with heavily armed Republican Guards spread over the area taking fighting positions, a Reuters witness reported. The Foreign Ministry is a few hundred metres from one of the main gates of the presidential palace which U.S. forces said they now occupied. A Reuters correspondent said Republican Guard units, each carrying half a dozen rocket-propelled grenades, were spread over the area taking fighting positions. Many of the bridges that cross the Tigris were also still under the control of Iraqi forces but the bridge directly next to the information ministry was open. Marines said the two bridges they were fighting to secure were badly damaged in the battle, rendering them impassable for tanks and heavy armor. The two Marines were killed when an artillery shell landed on the turret of their amphibious assault vehicle, blasting through the tracked vehicle’s armour, said Master Sergeant Marvin Crawford, Reuters near the scene, to the east of Baghdad. „Multiple Marines were injured and I know it was two that died, it was bad, there were body parts all over the place,” he said. The river was identified by U.S. Marine maps as the Nahr Diyala, a tributary of the Tigris river that flows up the eastern flank of the Iraqi capital. U.S. officer: ‘I do believe this city is freakin’ ours’ Under cover of tank-killing A10 Warthog planes and pilot-less drones, the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division rolled into central Baghdad at 6 a.m. Entering on the western side of the Tigris, which divides the city, they came up Highway 8 meeting only moderate resistance – mostly assault fire and rocket-propelled grenades from infantry. „I do believe this city is freakin’ ours,” said Capt. Chris Carter. „We’re attacking right down in the centre of the city right now,” said Major Michael Birmingham, chief public affairs officer for the U.S. 3rd Infantry. „The other day was just an incursion. This is for real,” he added The U.S. Army columns moved northeast to the newest and main presidential palace on the river. Iraqis fled along its banks and some jumped in the water. An ammunition depot across the river was on fire. Attack Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry entered the palace compound, searching the ground and beginning to secure the building. Iraqis shot small arms fire at them from a clock tower overlooking the compound. Tanks quickly destroyed it. Most of the compound was severely damaged from prior U.S. raids. Col. David Perkins told his troops before the operation that the mission was intended to be „a dramatic show of force” to demonstrate that U.S. forces can enter Baghdad at any time, anywhere. He said another palace on the eastern side of the Tigris was being attacked. „I hope this makes it clear to the Iraqi people that this (the regime) is over and that they can now enjoy their new freedom,” Perkins said. Perkins said the resistance coming into the city was heavier than expected. He had thought most Iraqi defenses were wiped out Saturday, but Iraqi troops laid new minefields and set up many new firing positions. On entering the city, Bradley fighting vehicles and tanks took up fighting positions around the presidential palace on the way in, up Highway 8. U.S. troops had to pass through a 400-yard (meter)-long minefield to approach the area. There were 200 anti-tank mines spread on the road and U.S. troops pushed them aside and continued down the highway. „In the last 17 days – over 500 miles and heavy, heavy fighting on many days – to finally be here is a great accomplishment,” said Perkins. As U.S. troops penetrated the city, members of Saddam’s Fedayeen paramilitary fighters prevented journalists from leaving their hotel. Iraqi troops did not use any mortars or artillery against the American forces. F-16 fighter jets flew ahead of the U.S. armored column, bombing any tanks or armored personnel carriers along the way. U.S. troops also fired mortars on key intersections before passing through. Tanks took up positions around key intersections. Iraqi forces lit a oil trench in the area in an apparent attempt to confuse the attackers. British officer says army seeking confirmation ‘Chemical Ali’ dead The British military think they have found the body of Saddam Hussein’s cousin, „Chemical Ali”, but are still awaiting firm confirmation, a military spokesman said on Monday. „We believe we have found the body of Chemical Ali however we need to get that confirmed,” said a British spokesman at Central Command headquarters. Ali Hassan al-Majid, dubbed „Chemical Ali” by opponents of the Iraqi regime for ordering a poison gas attack that killed thousands of Kurds, has been found dead, a British officer had said earlier Monday. Al-Majid was a first cousin of Saddam Hussein, who had entrusted him with defense of southern Iraq against invading coalition forces.