U.S. encroaches Iraqi capital
(AP) Lead American infantry units donned chemical suits yesterday after capturing a bridge just 65 kilometres southeast of Baghdad, while United States marines were even closer to the Iraqi capital after destroying one division of Saddam Hussein's battle-hardened Republican Guard as they crossed the Tigris River, American military officials said.
The units were both reported well within the 80 km "red zone" defensive cordon around the ancient city, heightening concerns of a possible chemical attack by Saddam's regime. Marine helicopter pilots were advised to be ready to don chemical suits at a moment's notice after they moved into the range of the guns and missiles defending Baghdad.
"There may be a trigger line where the regime deems a sufficient threat to use weapons of mass destruction," warned U.S. Brig.-Gen. Vincent Brooks, as the ground troops moved toward Baghdad from the southeast and southwest.
The bridge was rigged with explosives, which were defused by engineers to allow U.S. units across the river. The units at the front of the infantry push put on their chemical protective gear as they drew inexorably closer to the battle for Baghdad.
Eventually, the U.S.-led forces intend to launch a synchronized attack on Baghdad with the infantry, the marines and the air force, said navy Capt. Frank Thorp, a U.S. Central Command spokesman.
Meanwhile, the bombardment of the Baghdad area continued yesterday. Air strikes hit the sprawling Baghdad International Trade Fair compound, reducing most buildings to twisted metal, shattered concrete and broken glass. Located in the upscale district of Al-Mansour, the centre's military importance to coalition forces wasn't immediately clear.
Declaring "victory is at hand," Saddam issued a new statement urging Iraqis to continue fighting in defence of their towns, according to a broadcast on Iraqi satellite television.
Two additional statements Wednesday were also attributed to Saddam a warning to Iraqi Kurdish leaders who are co-operating with U.S. forces in Northern Iraq and an offer of cash rewards to those who help identify spies for the U.S.-led coalition.
Saddam did not read the statements on the air and there was no immediate way to verify that he authored them. U.S. officials say they don't know if the Iraqi leader is alive, wounded or dead.