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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- U.S. troops seized key buildings in the heart of the Iraqi capital Monday, including a major presidential palace on the Tigris River, the Information Ministry and the Al-Rashid Hotel.
Under cover of tank-killing A10 Warthog planes and pilot-less drones, the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division rolled into central Baghdad at 6 a.m.
Entering on the western side of the Tigris, which divides the city, they came up Highway 8 meeting only moderate resistance -- mostly assault fire and rocket-propelled grenades from infantry.
"I do believe this city is freakin' ours," said Capt. Chris Carter of Watkinsville Ga.
The U.S. Army columns moved northeast to the newest and main presidential palace on the river. Iraqis fled along its banks and some jumped in the water. An ammunition depot across the river was on fire.
Attack Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry entered the palace compound, searching the ground and beginning to secure the building. Iraqis shot small arms fire at them from a clock tower overlooking the compound. Tanks quickly destroyed it.
Most of the compound was severely damaged from prior U.S. raids.
Col. David Perkins told his troops before the operation that the mission was intended to be "a dramatic show of force" to demonstrate that U.S. forces can enter Baghdad at any time, anywhere.
He said another palace on the eastern side of the Tigris was being attacked. "I hope this makes it clear to the Iraqi people that this (the regime) is over and that they can now enjoy their new freedom," Perkins said.
Perkins said the resistance coming into the city was heavier than expected: He had thought most Iraqi defenses were wiped out Saturday, but Iraqi troops laid new minefields and set up many new firing positions.
Two American soldiers were injured in the assault and one U.S. tank immobilized.
On entering the city, Bradley fighting vehicles and tanks took up fighting positions around the presidential palace on the way in, up Highway 8.
U.S. troops had to pass through a 400-yard-long minefield to approach the area. There were 200 anti-tank mines spread on the road and U.S. troops pushed them aside and continued down the highway.
"I think it's a good testament to the American soldier," Perkins said. "In the last 17 days -- over 500 miles and heavy, heavy fighting on many days -- to finally be here is a great accomplishment."
As U.S. troops penetrated the city, members of Saddam's Fedayeen paramilitary fighters prevented journalists from leaving their hotel.
Iraqi troops did not use any mortars or artillery against the American forces.
F-16 fighter jets flew ahead of the U.S. armored column, bombing any tanks or armored personnel carriers along the way. U.S. troops also fired mortars on key intersections before passing through.
Tanks took up positions around key intersections.
Black smoke clogged the air and covered the city.
The stepped-up assault on Baghdad followed a weekend of incursions by U.S. forces in tanks and armored personnel carriers. Troops rolled through streets of the capital "destroying all of the enemy vehicles and personnel with whom they've come in contact," Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN on Sunday.
"One of the points is to destroy the enemy that we found, and the last two raids have been very, very successful at doing that," he said.
Intermittent explosions were heard in the city Sunday night into Monday, along with periodic anti-aircraft fire. Shortly before dawn, aircraft could be heard over the capital and heavier explosions shook downtown buildings, echoing from the southern outskirts.
After sunrise, a long series of blasts rocked Baghdad and dark gray smoke rose on the horizon to the south and southwest. Residents could hear what seemed to be the sound of surface-to-surface rockets, artillery and aircraft.
Prayers broadcast from Baghdad's mosques filtered through the din of battle. "God is great and to him we owe thanks," clerics intoned every time the city came under attack.
South of the capital, U.S. forces took control of the center of the holy city of Karbala on Sunday after block-by-block fighting, the Army Times newspaper reported from the scene.
Suggesting disarray among Iraq's elite fighters, Saddam Hussein urged Iraqi troops separated from their combat units to join other squads to fend off the Americans, in a statement read Sunday on Iraqi television and radio.
The statement also said anyone who destroys an allied tank, armored personnel carrier or artillery would be awarded 15 million dinars, or about $8,000 by the unofficial exchange rate.
Iraqi satellite television showed brief footage of a smiling Saddam in military uniform chairing a meeting it said was held Sunday with his top aides.
In a separate announcement, a broadcaster for Iraqi state radio read a decree by Saddam that two female suicide bombers be awarded posthumously the medal of the Al-Rafdin -- or "The Two Rivers" -- the nation's highest decoration, and that their families be given 50 million dinars or about $28,000 each.
The attack last week in western Iraq killed three U.S. soldiers at a checkpoint 80 miles from the Syrian border.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)