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America At War

Four Miles To Go

U.S. Marines fire mortars at Iraqi positions in the town of Kut, central Iraq, Thursday, April 3, 2003. (AP Photo) U.S. Marines fire mortars at Iraqi positions in the town of Kut, central Iraq, Thursday, April 3, 2003. (AP Photo)

April 3, 2003
Posted at: 9:45 a.m. CST

SOUTH OF BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. Marines and infantry moved with surprising speed toward Baghdad on Thursday, passing down roads littered with black combat boots as Saddam Hussein's loyalists shed their uniforms and switched to tribal robes hoping to avoid capture.

Coalition forces drove to within four miles of the Baghdad city gates. Thousands of U.S. military vehicles of the 7th Infantry pushed across the Euphrates River from the south and west of Baghdad after fighting through a failed Iraqi attempt to hold the bridge at Musayyib, 35 miles due south of the capital. The bridge had been wired with explosives, which were disarmed by U.S. engineers.

Scores of blown up Iraqi vehicles and dozens of dead bodies lined the roads where the Iraqis had built fighting positions. The dead were in uniform — though it was unclear whether they were Republican Guard or regular army units.

Dozens of Iraqi soldiers have surrendered. The Army was slowly shuttling the prisoners to the rear as it pressed ahead toward the capital.

In Kut, an Iraqi military town on the Tigris River southeast of Baghdad, Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines were battling Iraqi fighters building to building.

The Marines were jumping on rooftops and going through all the rooms in some buildings. Tanks roamed the city and the Marines were taking small arms fire and mortars. Three Marines were wounded, two lightly, one more seriously.

On the outskirts of Kut, Marines opened fire on a military training academy, blowing a hole into a mosaic portrait of Saddam.

Residents said women and children had been sent out of the city in the past days and that pro-Saddam militias had taken young men away to force them to fight the advancing coalition forces.

"They want to give us machine guns and make us fight. We are civilians, how can we fight?" Kut resident Kasem Fasil said. "Some people, they didn't want to fight and they killed them."

Fasil and Ali Hussein, another Kut resident, said if the Americans go to Baghdad, they are afraid Saddam's forces will unleash chemical weapons on Shiite Muslim towns like theirs. Saddam rules over a Sunni Muslim regime.

The Marines say they found a cache of untouched chemical weapons protection suits at one Iraqi bunker in the area.

As they advanced, Marines were stopping every vehicle they met along the main road. Drivers and passengers got out of taxis and cars and stood by the road with their hands in the air.

At a Baath Party building flying Iraqi flags, a small group of men sat clustered in a grassy area around a woman dressed in a black chador and waving a white flag of surrender.

Many groups of Iraqis sat down by the roadside, waving and smiling at the Marines to show they were not combatants.

American infantry troops were moving out of the desert into farm fields with tall grass and palm trees. Small farms with rice paddies dot the banks of the Euphrates and irrigation canals.

Iraqi soldiers had used the tall grass as cover to fire on U.S. forces, which were forced to weave through and around irrigation canals. U.S. war planes continued to roar overhead providing cover for advancing U.S. troops.

Around the bridge that crosses the Euphrates, hundreds of tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers and a bridge building unit stood by had the Iraqis blown the bridge.

The temperatures neared the 90s Thursday and U.S. troops were expected to remain in chemical protective gear after unconfirmed reports that Iraqi commanders had given orders to use chemical weapons when coalition forces crossed the bridge.

So far no such weapons detected, but the troops were hot and miserable.

One scout vehicle was hit by a rocket propelled grenade.

"A scout just got hit by an RPG, this is serious up here," said Capt. Chris Carter from Wakinsville, Ga.

The U.S. convoy was kicking up huge plumes of dust as the hundreds of vehicles rolled down the single tarmac and dirt road. All the talk on the radio was about how to clear up the traffic jams.

The Marines southeast of Baghdad began the Thursday drive toward the capital protected by withering artillery and mortar fire. A massive convoy of moved along the main road leading to the Iraqi capital.

Relentless fire from 155 mm howitzers rained on Iraqi positions near the town of Numaniyah as the Marine advance resumed. Large black plumes of smoke could be seen rising from the town and its prized Tigris River crossing, taken by American troops Wednesday.

The Pentagon said Iraqi Republican Guard reinforcements had moved out of Baghdad toward the approaching Americans. New groups of Saddam's best trained and equipped fighters were dispatched to replace guard units shattered Wednesday when some U.S. forces had fought to within 20 miles of the city.

But many Iraqi units quickly abandoned defensive positions and fled, leaving behind trenches littered with everything from mortars and small arms to teapots and bedspreads.

"When they ran, it wasn't for lack of ammo. They've got enough," one Marine said as he examined the trenches.

With coalition forces now well into the so-called Red Zone radiating from Baghdad, troops had breached the region in which commanders feared Saddam's forces might resort to the use of chemical or biological weapons.

Iraq denies it still has weapons of mass destruction, and U.S. troops have yet to locate any, although they've found hundreds of chemical protective suits.

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

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