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U.S. Troops Storm Baghdad, Seize Palace

U.S. Troops Storm Baghdad, Seize Palace

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- U.S. forces in tanks and armored vehicles stormed into the center of Baghdad on Monday, seizing one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in a bold daylight raid aimed at demonstrating the Americans can come and go as they please.

In the afternoon, some 10 hours after the battle began, Iraqi snipers fired on U.S. soldiers from rooms in the state-owned Al-Rashid Hotel after a platoon conducted a patrol in the neighborhood near the palace. U.S. tanks returned fire with their main guns and .50 caliber machine guns.

U.S. Troops Storm Baghdad, Seize Palace

More than 70 tanks and 60 Bradley fighting vehicles took part in the lightning thrust by the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, with tank-killing A-10 Warthog planes and pilotless drones providing air cover against mostly disorganized resistance.

At the city's southern edge, though, Marines and Army troops faced bloody fighting.

Two Marines were killed and two wounded when their armored troop carrier was hit by an artillery shell at a bridge spanning a canal. The Marines advanced into the capital by foot after the Iraqis blew apart the bridge.

U.S. Troops Storm Baghdad, Seize Palace


Also, a group of U.S. armored personnel carriers in southern Baghdad was hit by rockets, according to field reports. Six American soldiers were reported missing and a large number were wounded.

In the heart of Baghdad, American soldiers who reached the gold-and-blue-domed New Presidential Palace used the toilets, rifled through documents in the bombed-out compound, and helped themselves to ashtrays, pillows, gold-painted Arab glassware and other souvenirs. The Americans also blew up a statue of Saddam on horseback in the center of the city.

"I do believe this city is freakin' ours," boasted Capt. Chris Carter of Watkinsville Ga.

U.S. troops set up a prisoner of war collection point in the palace compound. As Iraqis were captured in street fighting outside, they were brought to the palace for processing before being sent behind U.S. lines. At one point, a group of nine Iraqis surrendered after hearing on loudspeakers that if they did so they would live.

There was no estimate of Iraqi casualties from the raid, but 10 miles outside the capital, about 100 Iraqi soldiers were reported killed at the Baghdad airport in seven hours of fighting that ended early Monday. On Sunday, a giant C-130 transport landed at the airport in the first known arrival of a U.S. plane since the airfield fell into U.S. hands last week.

During their armored thrust into the city, allied forces also came near the state-owned Al-Rashid Hotel and very close to the Information Ministry, said Lt. Mark Kitchens.

The Al-Rashid was used by foreign reporters during the 1991 Gulf War. At that time, the U.S. government alleged that the building housed a military communications center. This time, many foreign journalists are staying at the Palestine Hotel.

During a dust-blown news conference on the roof of the Palestine Hotel, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said the American invaders had tried to penetrate the city but were slaughtered. He declared: "Be assured Baghdad is safe, secure and great."

"There is no presence of the American columns in the city of Baghdad, none at all," he said. A sandstorm and black smoke from oil trench fires that were set by the Iraqis to cloak the city cast a haze over Baghdad.

Kitchens noted that when al-Sahaf was giving his news conference, a U.S. shell was fired and landed nearby.

In the afternoon, Baghdad continued to be rocked by explosions from areas on the west bank of the Tigris River.

Across from the New Presidential Palace, Iraqi forces took up positions in buildings that make up the University of Baghdad. They fired heavy machine guns across the 400 yard-wide river. U.S. troops called in mortar fire and close air support to shell and bomb the Iraqi fighters.

A platoon from Attack company conducted a patrol in the neighborhood near the palace. The men in the Bradley fighting vehicles did not encounter any hostile fire as they drove near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The patrol stopped at a government complex across from the gigantic tomb, where there were bunkers and foxholes built around the entrance. Outside the fighting positions were dozens of pairs of military boots and some uniforms, apparently abandoned by fleeing Iraqi troops. Inside the bunkers were dozens of rocket-propelled grenades and two launchers.

Roads leading to the old palace compound and the Al-Rashid Hotel were blocked. Militiamen and Iraqi army troops set up barricades about 500 yards away from the hotel. A bridge over the Tigris that runs close to the palace was closed, together with a stretch of road linking the Information Ministry to the palace, which is a vast complex with several huge entrances.

An official at the al-Kindi Hospital in the working-class district of al-Nahda said at least 75 wounded civilians had been brought there since the morning. Most suffered from gunshot wounds, burns and shrapnel.

State radio and Iraqi television remained on the air. State radio exhorted Iraqis in emotional appeals to fight the U.S. forces. "Rise up against oppression and tyranny. Draw the swords of righteousness in the face of falsehood," it said.

In some areas of Baghdad, cafes were filled with men drinking black sweet tea and smoking water pipes. Teenagers played street soccer and some residents played backgammon outside their homes.

The number of people and the volume of traffic on the streets, however, were perhaps the lowest since the war began March 20.

Few shops were open, and only a few people were out on the streets. At the main bus terminal close to the Al-Rashid Hotel, about 500 people including soldiers stood around, waiting for buses.

The Information Ministry looked deserted except for several men carrying rocket-propelled grenade rifles and half a dozen army troops behind sandbagged fighting positions outside. They flashed the V for victory sign.

Not far from the Al-Rashid Hotel, Iraqi army trucks and at least two artillery cannons looked abandoned.

Armed militiamen milled around the area on bicycles, and army troops and militiamen darted around in muddy, four-by-four vehicles.

The U.S. military portrayed the strike as a raid through the city, not a seizure of territory or targets. Army Col. David Perkins told his troops that the mission was a demonstration that U.S. forces could move about the city at will.

"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.

Tanks barreled into the capital on the western side of the Tigris River at 6 a.m. As they approached Baghdad along Highway 8, they met moderate resistance -- mostly assault fire and rocket-propelled grenades from infantry.

The Army columns moved northeast to the newest and main presidential palace on the river, which divides the capital. The palace, which is near Saddam's destroyed Baath Party headquarters, apparently was mainly residential rather than used for administrative purposes.

Iraqi men -- some nearly naked -- fled along its banks.

Witnesses said that some of the Iraqi soldiers at a camp on the southern tip of the presidential compound swam to the west bank of the Tigris to flee advancing U.S. soldiers.

Before the Americans seized the complex, Iraqis shot at them from a clock tower overlooking the compound. Tanks quickly destroyed it.

The main palace building -- sand-colored brick ornamented with blue tile -- was flooded in the basement and first floor. The rest of the building appeared to be destroyed, hit by cruise missiles or laser-guided bombs during previous raids. Palace curtains were strewn over the ground.

"This used to be a nice place. They should make it like a Six Flags, or something," said Spc. Robert Blake of State College, Pa.

During the Army's advance into the city, about 200 anti-tank mines that had been scattered on the road had to be pushed aside.

"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."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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