Everybody leads with the Army and Marines forces’ drive to the outskirts of Baghdad. According to early-morning wire reports caught by the Los Angeles Times, troops have actually reached Baghdad’s main airport, Saddam International—a not very expensive taxi ride away from downtown, about 12 miles. (Here’s a map of the city.) The separate Army and Marines advances both apparently punched through Iraqi Republican Guard divisions. The U.S. 3rd Infantry Division took on the much-vaunted Medina Division while the Marines went through the Baghdad Division. The Pentagon said the Iraqi divisions are “no longer credible forces.” All part of the plan, said an Iraqi government official who read a statement purportedly from Saddam explaining that “victory is at hand.”
The New York Times says that the action at least started off less as a bee-line toward Baghdad and more as a race to cut off Republican Guard troops from falling back into the city. The papers say it’s not clear how successful the effort was. Meanwhile, as the Wall Street Journal says up high, the advancing troops stuck to their strategy of skipping over major population areas, in this case the city of Karbala itself and the town of Kut.
According to initial reports, no U.S. soldiers on the ground were killed in the fight, but a Blackhawk transport helicopter was shot down—and there are conflicting reports about casualties: According to the LAT, the Pentagon said seven soldiers died in the crash, but commanders in the gulf said they weren’t sure about that. Also, early this morning a U.S. F/A-18 fighter was shot down, the first plane to be taken down by Iraqi fire. No word yet on the status of the pilot.
Apparently the key question facing Franks is whether to hold off on going into Baghdad proper for a few weeks until reinforcements arrives—namely the 4th Infantry, which the LAT mentions won’t be fully deployed until mid-May. (Of course, having troops at the airport may be a hint about the answer to that.) The NYTimes mentions, in the 40th paragraph of a stuffed piece, that some field commanders still think that the U.S. should have more soldiers for the coming fights. ”Do we have enough troops? No,” said one American officer in Iraq who is “deeply involved in the planning of the Baghdad offensive.”
In a useful bit of context, the LAT points out that military planners had assumed that punching through the Republican Guard divisions would take about a week. (Slate’s Fred Kaplan says that the demise of the Republican Guard shouldn’t be a surprise: They’ve always been B-list.)
The NYT, meanwhile, reminds why Saddam left his Republican Guard troops outside Baghdad in the first place: He was afraid they might launch a coup against him. “Even military parades in the capital were carefully planned,” says the Times, “with the dates of the celebrations often being shifted at the last moment to thwart any plots.”
Everybody goes high with the thousands of happy greetings being given to U.S. troops in Najaf. “It’s like the liberation of Paris,” said one widely quoted officer. But nobody really explains why it’s happening there and hasn’t elsewhere. One guess: Maybe it’s because troops are now regularly patrolling Najaf, and giving the impression that they’re there to stay, rather than just moving through as they have in some other places. The Journal, meanwhile, surveys the scene in southern Iraq and concludes that without a large coalition presence, “Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian rule has, for now at least, been replaced with anarchy.”
The papers all mention reports of about 60 civilian deaths in the town of Hilla. “We’ve been overwhelmed by the large number of civilian casualties brought in during the last 48 hours,” said one Red Cross official quoted in the LAT. “There are lots and lots of dead bodies, many of them dismembered.” Only the NYT, though, seems to have actually filed from the city—thanks to an Information Ministry tour. The Times’ reporters say that they saw plenty of wounded women and children in the hospital—many of whom said they had been in a bus that was hit by (and here there are conflicting accounts) U.S. tank fire or cluster bombs.