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(AP) U.S. armored vehicles drove through Baghdad on Saturday, smashing through Iraq's Republican Guard to reach -- at least briefly -- the ultimate destination of their two-week surge across southern Iraq. In one skirmish, Marines with bayonets battled Arab fighters from abroad in a marsh on Baghdad's outskirts.
The U.S. incursion was not an attempt to capture large sections of Baghdad, which remained under tenuous Iraqi government control. Rather, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Gene Renuart, "it was a clear statement of the ability of coalition forces to move into Baghdad at the time and place of their choosing."
The intent, Renuart said in a briefing at Central Command in Qatar, was to show the Iraqi leadership "that they do not have the control they speak about on their television."
Though another Central Command officer had said earlier that U.S. forces were in the city to stay, Renuart described only a brief sweep by one unit in and out of the capital. He declined to say if any troops remained inside, though a U.S. military official -- speaking on condition of anonymity -- later said several unspecified objectives had been seized on the north and northwest edge of the city.
In southern Iraq, two coalition aircraft struck the Basra residence of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, Central Command said.
Al-Majid is a member of Saddam's inner circle and commander of southern forces, U.S. military officials said. They said he had once ordered Iraqi forces to use chemical weapons on Kurds in northern Iraq and was known as "Chemical Ali." The airstrike's effectiveness was being assessed, they added.
Iraqi TV played patriotic music, and soldiers and militiamen loyal to Saddam Hussein vowed to keep fighting. Renuart said the American armored unit encountered "pockets of very intense fighting" from Republican Guards and irregular fighters using rocket propelled grenades and air-to-air artillery weapons.
Thousands of U.S. troops had gathered on Baghdad's outskirts -- the 3rd Infantry Division arriving from the southwest and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force from the southeast.
The Iraqi military, in a statement read on satellite television, said U.S. forces were repulsed when they tried to advance on Baghdad from the south. "We were able to chop off their rotten heads," the statement said.
On the southern outskirts, Marines engaged in close-quarters fighting with pro-Saddam volunteers from Jordan, Egypt, Sudan and elsewhere, according to Lt. Col. B.P. McCoy of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines.
"It's like a jihad. They were given a rifle and told to become a martyr," said McCoy, whose troops used bayonets while battling in the reeds of a marsh.
As other Marine units advanced north, Iraqi civilian vehicles fled south, packed with bundles and bearing improvised white flags made from torn-up towels or T-shirts.
Explosions and machine-gun fire could be heard across Baghdad, and armed Iraqis in pickup trucks and police cars raced through the streets. Members of the Fedayeen, a militia led by Saddam's son Odai, appeared in downtown for the first time since the war began, identifiable by distinctive black uniforms.
Long lines at gasoline stations underscored a sense of crisis in a city that has been without power since Thursday night. At markets, vendors did a brisk business selling batteries and flashlights.
At Baghdad's airport, captured by U.S. troops Friday, soldiers used explosives to clear abandoned buildings and examined an extensive underground complex below the airfield.
Lt. Col. Lee Fetterman, a battalion commander with the 101st Airborne Division, said several hundred Iraqis were killed at the airport, including some with bombs strapped to them who apparently intended to attempt suicide attacks.
Renuart said the Americans' hold on the airport was firm, despite Iraqi counterattacks Saturday, and he indicated one runway would soon be usable. Yet Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf contended the Americans were ousted from the airport.
"Today, we butchered the force present at the airport," al-Sahhaf said. He also indicated that Iraqi fighters would stage "creative operations," including suicide attacks.
Southwest of the capital, units of the 3rd Infantry captured the abandoned headquarters of the Republican Guard's Medina division -- one of Saddam's best-trained units -- in the town of Suwayrah. Outside the base were dozens of artillery pieces, anti-aircraft guns, tanks and armored personnel carriers.
As U.S. forces entered Baghdad, there was no definitive word on Saddam's whereabouts. A statement attributed to him Saturday, read by al-Sahhaf, urged Iraqi fighters to destroy the "lost and shocked" enemy.
An Iraqi television broadcast Friday showed Saddam -- or someone posing as him -- greeting civilians in the streets of Baghdad and giving a defiant speech. A reference in the speech to a downed U.S. helicopter was interpreted by American intelligence officials as a sign Saddam probably did survive a missile and bombing strike intended to kill him on the opening night of the war.
"Saddam Hussein is no longer really a factor in this war," said Group Capt. Al Lockwood, a spokesman for the U.S.-British forces. "If we capture Saddam Hussein alive, so be it. We will put him on trial for war crimes. But if he is not alive, that will not affect the way we carry out this campaign."
Though U.S. casualties in the attack on Baghdad have been light, two Marine pilots were killed Saturday when their Super Cobra attack helicopter crashed in central Iraq.
Also, the Pentagon confirmed the first combat death of an American woman in the war -- Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, 23, of Tuba City, Ariz. Her body, and those of six colleagues from the 507th Maintenance Company, were found during the rescue of American POW Jessica Lynch in Iraq this week. Their unit was ambushed March 23.
The Arab television network Al-Jazeera, sometimes criticized for its coverage by U.S. officials, carried a report Saturday about American soldiers' efforts to provide fresh water for beleaguered civilians in the city of Nasiriyah.
One of the men waiting in line for water was evenhanded with his gripes.
"All are liars. Bush is a liar. Saddam is a liar," the man said. "We are an exhausted people."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)