KWAME HOLMAN: In a two-pronged attack, American soldiers and marines captured key towns and crossed the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. As they closed on Baghdad, troops in some lead units put on their chemical protection suits. But despite the threat of chemical warfare, the U.S. central command said a dagger now is pointed at the heart of Saddam Hussein's regime. The thrust north began on one of the darkest nights of the month, with little moonlight from the skies over central Iraq.
SPOKESMAN: Hey, I just saw on the south side of Karbala... ( heavy artillery fire )
KWAME HOLMAN: The army's third infantry unit, known as "the tip of the spear," now is inside Baghdad's so-called "red zone," as is the marines' first division farther to the east. Still, at the Pentagon today, Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal gave no indication of the timetable ahead.
REPORTER: Is this the beginning of the so-called battle of Baghdad?
MAJ. GEN. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL: I think it's hard to... it's hard to say exactly. It's clearly threatening Baghdad and threatening the core of the regime.
KWAME HOLMAN: That regime's fiercest fighters are Saddam Hussein's 60,000 member Republican Guard. Commanded by Saddam's son, Qusay, the Guard is highly trained and is feared to have chemical and biological weapons. At the same time, its ranks were depleted by the 1991 Gulf War, and its conventional weapons are considered antiquated. Several Republican Guard divisions now stand between U.S. soldiers and their destination: Baghdad. Near Karbala, along the Euphrates River, U.S. commanders say the 3rd infantry has depleted the Guard's Medina Division. Still, the Nebuchadnezzar and Hammurabi units reportedly have been sent reinforcements. At Karbala, U.S. Apache Helicopters assisted American ground troops, who eventually cross the Euphrates and continue their move north. There are miles of desert terrain ahead before they reach the urban outskirts of Baghdad. Along the way, U.S. soldiers searched civilians, and then offered humanitarian aid packages to Iraqis deemed safe. To the east, near the city of Kut, the marines' first division fought the Republican Guard's Baghdad division. The Iraqi Al Nidal Division is believed to be somewhere closer to Baghdad. The New York Times Dexter Filkins is with the marine division along the banks of the Tigris River. I spoke to him today.
DEXTER FILKINS: I think it's their understanding that this particular division, the Al Nidal division, is still there. That is to the north. There was a division and that is apparently past tense. There was a division called the Baghdad division. That was in the city of Kut, which is southeast of where we are. I know that that has been pronounced by the U.S. Military to have been destroyed which is pretty, pretty chilling when you think about it. But... so I think things are progressing here. I think these guys are ready for a fight. They haven't gotten a fight yet, but they are certainly ready.
KWAME HOLMAN: Dexter, tell us how fast are you moving and what are the conditions like -- weather, terrain, and are you seeing Iraqi civilians?
DEXTER FILKINS: Well, you know, armies move very slowly. They just do. You have... I mean, in the army that I'm moving with is gigantic, enormous to... it's hard to imagine if you don't see it, just how big and complicated and overwhelming an American army or American marine division is. It's just staggering, the number of vehicles, tanks, guns, generators, water trucks, oil trucks. So to get all these things together and to get it rolling, you can imagine it just takes a long time. So if you can move at 20 miles an hour, you are moving very quickly. Last night, we started moving from central Iraq, just as the sun was setting. We moved through the night with all our lights off, everything blacked out. Couple of thousands marines I believe moved across the Tigris River today, across the bridge that the marines captured yesterday. That bridge was apparently not terribly sturdy. You could only move one tank at a time. So the marines, again this is just an example of how, just what an overwhelming and impressive force this is they brought their own bridge so they are busy right now as I speak and it's late here, it's about 11:00 P.M. They are down on the Tigris River building a bridge. They have got bulldozers down there, and cranes, and bridge parts and boats - and brass - and they floated a bulldozer to the other side. I mean, it's just a remarkable thing.
KWAME HOLMAN: Very good. Finally, Dexter, you don't have any doubt that you are now headed with those marines to a battle for Baghdad?
DEXTER FILKINS: Well, it sure looks that way. My understanding is, yeah, we're going all the way. And I think the question that is beginning to loom in everyone's minds here, and I'm sure in the United States, is whether these Republican Guard divisions which have been talked about so much as being elite forces, whether they really just broke up and disintegrated under the onslaught of the American bombs or whether they've just fallen back into the cities and are willing to fight street by street, block by block and to... in which case, the Americans, the army, and the marines that were here were would be in for a terrible and very difficult fight -- I'm sure one they could probably win, but it would not be without great cost to them and to the Iraqi people as well. (Explosions)
KWAME HOLMAN: Continuing a recent pattern, U.S. bombardments of Baghdad itself targeted telecommunications structures, including phone exchanges. Most residents now have no dial tone. But residents also say the blasts hit near the Red Crescent Maternity Hospital, killing several. U.S. commanders said they were not aware of such a strike.
MAN ON STREET (Translated ): We are a peaceful nation, but we won't allow anybody to invade us, and god willing, this land will be their graveyard.
KWAME HOLMAN: Inside Baghdad, a unit known as the Special Republican Guard is charged with protecting Saddam Hussein and the city. They were bolstered today by some 150 volunteer fighters from Yemen, chanting loyalty to Saddam.
VOLUNTEER FROM YEMEN: They came here in order to stand side by side with brothers and sisters here in Baghdad.
KWAME HOLMAN: In northern Iraq near Mosul and Dohuk, the heavy air assault continued as B-52s pounded Iraqi front lines. (Explosions) Among the targets, according to residents, was a military compound used by members of the Ba'ath Party, in Dormiz. Teamed with Kurdish peshmerga fighters, the U.S. has been targeting these cities in recent days, in an effort to strengthen the northern front in its ground war on Iraq. Kurdish military commander Wagai Barzani said his army will continue to fight with U.S. forces.
WAGAI BARZAINI ( Translated ): We are coordinating with the Americans, with the American forces. If they start an attack on the ground, we're going to be side by side with them.
KWAME HOLMAN: Overnight, Kurdish fighters captured 40 Iraqi soldiers as they seized a bridge and two villages near the town of Bardarash, northeast of Mosul. And to the south, in several cities and towns that saw the first action of this war, U.S. and British units continued to battle Iraqi forces. In Basra, black smoke engulfed Iraq's second largest city. British mortars have pummeled the town for several days, and today destroyed another building they said housed Iraqi soldiers. Farther north in Nasiriyah, artillery and machine gun fire lit up the night sky over the Euphrates River. Coalition forces fired repeatedly into several key buildings, including the Ba'ath Party headquarters. With Iraqi fighters preoccupied, U.S. Special Operations forces were able to rescue POW Jessica Lynch from Nasiriyah's hospital at the center of town, which had served as an Iraqi command post. And huge explosions rocked the city of Najaf, after British planes bombed the headquarters of the ruling Ba'ath Party. Military officials said U.S. forces were being fired on from the city's Ali mosque, an important Shiite Muslim site. They said coalition forces refused to shoot back because of the building's religious significance.
VICTORIA CLARKE: Against all international laws of war, the regime's forces are using and abusing the mosque as a military fortress. We have not fired back and we continue to work hard to avoid civilian casualties and protect Iraq's holy sites.
KWAME HOLMAN: We get more on the situation in Najaf, from Jim Dwyer of the New York Times. Gwen Ifill spoke with him earlier.
GWEN IFILL: Jim Dwyer, you are traveling with the troops in Najaf. Tell us what the state of the battle is there today.
JAMES DWYER: It was very rich and harrowing day both full of a lot of fun and full of almost impossible problems, it seems to me. First of all, the American troops were greeted almost rapturously, I would say, by the people in Najaf. They were men and children and women out in the streets, applauding them, cheering them at almost every turn it seemed. At the same time, any time you got out of a jeep or a Humvee and were talking to people, they would come up to you and want to ask you all about how long were the Americans going to stay to stabilize the situation? When were they going to go to Baghdad and depose Saddam Hussein's government? And the most pressing question of all, though, was did we have water or food or fuel for them? There has been no water or food or fuel in the town for four days, people told me. Now interestingly the Americans, the military was very good at solving all kind of problems, has not been assigned the humanitarian relief task in this war, and it's clearly a big deal that needs to get addressed, particularly since war damage is disrupting the infrastructure in town. The folks in Najaf, you know, thought the Americans would have some relief supplies with them. There is as it turns out an airstrip in the town that can accommodate C-130s and even the C-105 cargo planes, but again there is no plan by any humanitarian relief groups that I know of. Maybe they'll get the infrastructure up and ticking in the next couple of days.
GWEN IFILL: Today at central command in Qatar the military officials said there were people inside mosques and Najaf firing on American troops and they were not firing back. Did you witness any of that?
JAMES DWYER: I did not see any of that. Nor did I hear that that was taking place. There was firing on the troops during the day. There were school buildings that were taken over and used as arms dumps and there was even a remarkable discovery of a mine manufacturing complex and indeed there were fresh mines laid on the roads going in and out of town. I was present when some of the mines were destroyed not in the manufacturing complex, but on the road itself. As for the mosque I saw no sign of that, of people shooting from those mosques today. We've been told that they've been using, the paramilitaries have been using the major graveyard in the town, one of the biggest in the world, or so it's said to be, as a hiding place from which to shoot. But the paramilitaries were largely routed today. They did... there were a few stragglers taking potshots towards the end of the day, but there was not an organized and effective force there.
GWEN IFILL: So does it seem now that Najaf is under coalition control? If that is so, who is running it?
JAMES DWYER: Well, no one is running it. I mean, I would say that the coalition forces can more or less come and go freely. They are subject to some guerrilla attacks, but the residents of the town are it seems to me heartened by the presence of the troops that are coming up and telling them where there are arms dumped and where the rocket propelled grenade launchers are located and things like that. But is there a civil authority in the town? The answer is no.
GWEN IFILL: So, Jim, Najaf is of course a holy city. Has that changed or altered in any way the American forces' approach to fighting and securing that area?
JAMES DWYER: Yes, they are very conscious of greeting the local imam, who's the leader, and also they created a cordon around the central mosque to make sure that it was not occupied and to make sure that the, that the people who wanted to worship there and do their daily prayers were able to get in and out without any hassles from anybody. So that was a key part of the planning that I saw and heard this afternoon.
GWEN IFILL: Okay. Jim Dwyer, thanks so much for joining us.
JAMES DWYER: Bye, now.
KWAME HOLMAN: Iraq's military denied any American gains, and insisted its troops were ready to fight. A statement issued in the name of Saddam Hussein said, "Victory is ours." It also offered rewards for anyone who catches a spy. State TV reported Saddam chaired a meeting with top officials and his sons today. And it showed footage of him with members of his cabinet laughing and smiling. It was unclear when the meeting took place. Sixty miles south of Baghdad, the Red Cross reported finding dozens of bodies in the town of Hillah today. Iraqi officials said a U.S. helicopter attack wounded some 280 people, and killed an unknown number. U.S. Central Command said it was investigating. In all, Iraq has reported 677 civilians killed so far, and more than 5,000 wounded. There's been no word on Iraqi military casualties. The U.S. Military death toll now is forty-nine, with fifteen missing and seven captured. And 27 British troops have died in the fighting to date. Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Thanks, Kwame. Turkey agreed today to let the U.S. ship food and fuel across its territory to American forces in northern Iraq. Secretary of State Powell brokered that deal during a visit to ease tensions. U.S. relations with Turkey have been strained since the Turks refused to let U.S. troops deploy there, to invade Iraq from the north. Also today, Russia complained that U.S. air strikes on Baghdad were too close to the Russian embassy there. The foreign ministry demanded an end to the bombing. Some 25,000 Muslims marched in Pakistan today, against the war in Iraq. They rallied in the city of Kwet-uh, and called for a holy war against the United States and allied forces. The turnout was smaller than other recent protests in Pakistan.