Washington, 3 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. military says its forces have moved within 50 kilometers of the southern outskirts of Baghdad, the goal of the two-week-old campaign in Iraq.
U.S. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, briefing reporters yesterday at allied military headquarters in Qatar, said the U.S.-British coalition has inflicted crippling damage on Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard arrayed in a defensive circle around the capital.
Brooks said allied forces have the Iraqi capital in their sights. "We will approach Baghdad. The dagger is clearly pointed at the heart of the regime right now and will remain pointed at it until the regime is gone," he said.
There are reports that some U.S. units have even advanced within 30 kilometers of Baghdad, and that they have donned chemical-protection suits. These fighters are well within what is called the "red zone."
U.S. commanders say crossing into this area could prompt Iraqi commanders to order the use of chemical or biological weapons. No such weapons have been used so far, and U.S. leaders say they will not stop the advance on Baghdad.
Brooks described it this way: "There may be a trigger line where the regime deems sufficient threat to use weapons of mass destruction, weapons that we know are available to them, weapons we've seen the regime use on their own people in the past, weapons we believe are in the possession of some of their forces now. That's the 'red zone.' So it's a conceptual line across which there may be a decision made by regime leaders."
The advance on Baghdad has been coming from two directions, the southwest and the southeast.
From the southwest, U.S. Army units pushed past Republican Guard positions west of Karbala toward Baghdad and seized control of a nearby dam. There had been fears that Iraqis would blow up the dam and flood the region, making it impassable to coalition troops.
From the southeast, near the city of Kut, U.S. Marines "destroyed" the Baghdad Division of the Republican Guard, in Brooks's words. There they also seized a strategically located bridge over the Tigris River, which runs through Baghdad farther north.
At the press briefing in Qatar, Brooks said other Republican Guard units fared little better than the Baghdad Division. "If I were to characterize the condition of the rest of the Republican Guard force's command, I would probably say, first, that they are in trouble. Two, they are under serious attack right now, and those attacks will continue until we're finished with the task at hand," Brooks said.
The quick advance of U.S. forces has not come without problems. First, Iraqi guerrillas repeatedly attacked allied supply convoys and otherwise harassed the allied troops, slowing their progress toward Baghdad.
Most recently, Iraqi units have reportedly been deploying in buildings that are off-limits, in violation of international rules of warfare. Brooks put it this way at the Qatar briefing: "Two things seem to be an emerging pattern. The first is putting your [Iraq's] weapons in weapons caches inside of schools with children nearby in many cases -- that's happened in several towns. The second is using hospitals as a place to do command and control."
One Iraqi unit in Najaf, 150 kilometers south of Baghdad, has been firing on coalition troops with impunity because they have taken up positions in the Ali Mosque, a gold-domed structure that is said to be the burial place of Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law. U.S. and British forces have declared such sites in Iraq to be so-called "no-target" zones.
In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Parliament that coalition forces will not be drawn into damaging Iraqi religious or cultural landmarks. "The Iraqi regime intends to damage the holy sites, the religious sites, with a view to blaming the coalition falsely for that damage," Blair said.
There also has been renewed bombing of Baghdad itself, and of Mosul in northern Iraq. Also north of Baghdad, U.S. forces have been deploying at an aging air strip near Irbil to help set the stage for a drive against Baghdad from the north.
Also in northern Iraq, U.S. Special Forces have been working closely with Kurdish fighters opposed to Saddam's rule. This prompted a warning yesterday from the Baghdad government, which said the Kurds would regret siding with the Americans.
The allies view a northern front as essential to driving Saddam from power. But organizing the effort has been slowed because Turkey, which borders on northern Iraq, has refused to allow U.S. and British forces to use its military bases for the war. Ankara has, however, permitted coalition planes to use its airspace for flights into Iraq.
Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was in the Turkish capital to discuss cooperation on the war, and he thanked Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul for Turkey's decision not to send troops into the region. Ankara has expressed concern about a possible humanitarian crisis in northern Iraq spilling into Turkey.
Powell said he and Gul also addressed postwar Iraq, and Turkey's role in it. Powell said Turkey's eight decades of democracy will serve as an example to its neighbor. "Turkey will have an important role to play in this reconstruction effort [in Iraq], not only helping with direct reconstruction help, but also by the example that Turkey will provide to Iraq of a democracy," Powell said.
Blair also addressed that subject, saying the U.S.-British military coalition must make sure an Iraqi government takes control of the country quickly, once Saddam is deposed. "As soon as possible, Iraq should not be run either by the coalition or by the UN. It should be run by Iraqis. And it should be run by Iraqi people on the basis of a broadly representative government that protects human rights and that is committed to peace and stability in region," Blair said.
Blair has advocated a leading role for the United Nations in postwar Iraq. The United States has expressed less enthusiasm for a dominant UN role. Powell has argued that setting up a new government in Iraq should be the right of the coalition partners who bore the burden of driving Saddam Hussein from power.
The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has set up a commission to administer Iraq immediately after a war, and appointed a retired general to serve as a civil administrator. The U.S. Defense Department says American forces plan to hand over authority to an interim government of Iraqis within months after the fighting ends.