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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- 3rd Infantry Division Advances To Baghdad Outskirts

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is embedded with the tactical-operations center of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team in the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division. Today, he reports that the division has achieved major advances in the past two days and is now on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital.

Near Baghdad, 3 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Forward combat teams from the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division have advanced to positions near the outskirts of Baghdad today.

Most of the 3rd Infantry Division has crossed the Euphrates River following the capture of a strategic bridge yesterday by its 1st Brigade Combat Team. The division has been on the move since yesterday morning, when it launched an assault against Iraqi positions from the south side of Karbala, about 80 kilometers southwest of the Iraqi capital.

The advance is half of a rapid two-pronged attack toward Baghdad, with U.S. Marines from the 1st Expeditionary Force driving on the capital from farther east and seizing a bridge across the Tigris River.

The majority of tanks, Bradley troop carriers, and logistical-support elements of the 3rd Infantry Division moved across the Euphrates bridge earlier today. Wreckage around the bridge testified to fierce fighting. The hulls of a half-dozen Russian-built BMP troop carriers -- each capable of transporting up to 11 Iraqi soldiers -- lay on the east side of the Euphrates River, following firefights with U.S. forces.

Iraqi troops had tried to destroy the bridge by igniting explosives near its central support pillars. A giant hole was ripped in the surface of the bridge from beneath, pushing steel support rods toward the sky. But the structure did not collapse and one of the bridge's lanes remained open and passable today.

As the U.S. advance moved from the desert into more populated farmland, the changing landscape altered the shape of the fighting.

Groves of palm trees, as well as tall reeds and grasses, are providing cover for Iraqi foot soldiers who are trying to creep up against the flanks of the U.S. armored columns and their newly fortified positions.

Meanwhile, the U.S. tanks and Bradleys have been forced to travel on levees and roads running alongside irrigation canals. The U.S. troops are crossing the narrow channels on small bridges that become bottlenecks for their advance when they come under fire.

Our correspondent reported that most of the Iraqi Republican Guard he has seen battling U.S. forces today have been traveling in white Nissan pickup trucks or civilian cars. At one position, he reported watching as Iraqi troops in six civilian cars charged at U.S. forces simultaneously, none of them revealing their rocket-propelled grenade launchers, AK-47s, or 120-millimeter mortars until they exited the vehicles.

Under U.S. rules of engagement, U.S. soldiers are not allowed to fire at civilians or civilian vehicles unless they can confirm there are weapons in the vicinity. In responding to approaching vehicles that may pose a threat, U.S. soldiers are under instructions to fire a warning shot in the road or charge Bradley troop carriers straight at the vehicles as a warning they should turn back.

If the vehicles proceed but there are still no weapons visible, soldiers must ask commanding officers for permission to fire. Our correspondent reported that in such incidents, the soldiers are generally not receiving permission to shoot.

Still, in most cases, the Iraqi weaponry has been no match for the U.S. armor. Our correspondent reported today seeing some 100 Iraqi pickup trucks and civilian cars either in flames or completely burned out, with scores of dead Iraqi soldiers in uniforms lying nearby on the roadside.

So far, our correspondent reported he can confirm one direct hit by an Iraqi rocket-propelled grenade against a U.S. Abrams tank -- the result of an attack carried out while U.S. soldiers in the tank were awaiting permission to fire on what appeared to be a civilian vehicle. In that incident, the U.S. troops did not see the Iraqi RPG launcher until it was fired.

Our correspondent reported that he has also seen a temporary POW compound on the roadside: a 10-square-meter patch of earth surrounded by barbed wire. It contained more than a dozen uniformed Republican Guards, looking somewhat dazed but resigned as hundreds of U.S. vehicles streamed past them.

Our correspondent reported that his perspective on the fighting is only a small part of the larger battle near Baghdad. He said that, from everything he has personally witnessed over the course of the 15-day war, all the indications are that Iraqi troops are outnumbered and outclassed by superior U.S. weaponry. He compared the U.S. advance in recent days as being like "a hot knife cutting through butter," with U.S. armor pausing only minutes for occasional skirmishes with Iraqi troops before pushing forward.

Perhaps most significantly, U.S. forces today engaged the Soviet-built T-72 tanks of the elite Republican Guard.

Lieutenant Colonel Eric Wesley, executive officer of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, told RFE/RL today that about a dozen T-72 tanks have been destroyed. He said those tanks made desperate charging attacks at U.S. armor and "died a quick death."