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Last Updated:  Saturday, 5 April, 2003, 18:51 GMT 19:51 UK
Analysis: US thrust into Baghdad

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC defence correspondent at US Central Command, Qatar

One colleague, perhaps rather tastelessly, called Saturday morning's US operation in southern Baghdad "the longest drive-by shooting in history".

Damaged US Abrams tank
A US tank was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade
It is not a bad description of what the Americans appear to be calling "Operation Thunder Run".

This was essentially an attention-seeking tactic aimed at both the Iraqis and the international media.

The message, as General Gene Renuart, US Central Command Director of Operations put it, was "to put a bit of an exclamation point that coalition troops were in the vicinity of Baghdad and to demonstrate that, whatever their claims, the Iraqi authorities do not control the situation there".

It certainly grabbed our attention.

What began as a small probe into the southern outskirts of the city suddenly escalated into what some journalists thought was the final push on Baghdad.

Fact or fiction?

Things were not helped by vague comments from US spokesmen, suggesting that their troops were in "downtown Baghdad" or at "the centre of the city".

PUSH FOR BAGHDAD

Piercing through the fog of war, it quickly became clear that this was no such thing.

It was subsequently described by General Renuart as a raid by two task forces of the Third Infantry Division.

Starting from a point just south of the Iraqi capital they drove northwards into the city until they reached a huge hairpin bend in the Tigris river.

They then swung westwards through a major interchange or junction and headed towards the international airport, already in US hands.

It was, according to the general, "a clear statement of the ability of coalition forces to enter Baghdad at times and places of their own choosing".

Gripping film

The television film, possibly shot from the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle of one of the operation's commanders, was dramatic, compelling and just a little frightening.

Destroyed Iraqi anti-aircraft gun in Baghdad
US troops destroyed an Iraqi anti-aircraft gun

It showed a small column of Abrams tanks and Bradleys driving along an urban motorway, firing on positions on both sides of the road.

Any civilian vehicles which approached the column at speed were also fired on - US troops well aware of the threat from suicide bombers.

The Americans say that they encountered Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard positions, along with irregular Iraqi forces.

There was intense fighting in some areas, with the column coming under fire from anti-aircraft guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

From the television film it looks as though at least one US Abrams tank was severely damaged. It was shown smoking and under tow by a second tank.

A US medical detachment in two M113 armoured personnel carriers with prominent red crosses was also shown picking up casualties.

US displays muscle

The probe or raid was just that. But it did demonstrate the ability of US forces to push into the city.

Initially I thought this might be an attempt to "bite-off" and isolate the south-western section of the capital that in tactical terms "overlooks" the international airport. But there is no indication that this was the goal.

US forces have pushed around the western side of Baghdad. And they are also close to the capital's south-eastern approaches.

With indications of Iraqi units to the east and north of the city there could still be some significant fighting ahead.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Rageh Omaar in Baghdad
"The real prize now is for control of this city"



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