Coalition Forces 15 Miles From Baghdad; Chemical Risk Considered High

Troops close in on Iraqi capital, where battles are expected to be fierce.

[This story was updated on 04.02.03 at 9:29 p.m. ET.]

Bombing continued in Baghdad early Thursday local time, as U.S. ground forces pushed to within 15 miles of the Iraqi capital, where battles are expected to be particularly fierce.

About 40 satellite-guided bombs pounded heavily secured storage facilities in the area used by forces loyal to Saddam Hussein, U.S. Central Command said.

Earlier on Wednesday, day 15 of Operation Iraqi Freedom, coalition troops dismantled two divisions of Iraq's elite Republican Guard on their way to Baghdad, a city of 4.8 million people and the probable location of much of Hussein's administration as well as possibly the Iraqi president himself, according to CNN.

U.S. officials believe Hussein might use the chemical and biological weapons he's suspected of having now that U.S.-led forces are approaching the city. "There may be a trigger line where the regime deems [there is a] sufficient threat to use weapons of mass destruction," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said in a press briefing. "It's a conceptual line across which there may be a decision made by regime leaders."

As for the ground battles, U.S. Marines destroyed the Baghdad Division of the Republican Guard that had been defending the city of Kut, and they captured a key bridge over the Tigris River, Brooks said. (Click for map of the battlefield.)

In Karbala, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division engaged the Medina Division of the Republican Guard and took control of a dam on the lake, which officials had feared the Iraqis might destroy in order to flood American troops. Karbala had been the last major urban center between the 3rd Infantry and Baghdad.

In the Pentagon's daily news briefing, Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said both divisions of what had been among Iraq's strongest troops were no longer "credible forces" and posed considerably less of a threat.

For more than a week, U.S. forces have pounded Republican Guard positions from the air. U.S. planes have flown more than 18,000 sorties since the start of the war and dropped 3,000 precision-guided bombs over the weekend alone.

With the Republican Guard now weakened, the U.S. appears poised to launch a two-pronged ground attack from the south and southeast on Baghdad, although Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf on Wednesday denied that coalition forces were closely approaching the capital.

"They are lying every day, they are lying always, and mainly they are lying to their public opinion," Sahaf said, according to CNN. "What they say about a breakthrough is completely an illusion."

Early Wednesday in Nasiriya, Special Forces troops staged the successful rescue of an Army soldier who was taken prisoner of war by Iraqi paramilitary fighters. Pfc. Jessica Lynch, 19, of Palestine, West Virginia, was reportedly being held in a hospital that local paramilitary forces were using as a base. Lynch was flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where she is being treated for bullet wounds, broken legs and a broken arm, according to CNN. During the raid to rescue Lynch, U.S. troops recovered 11 bodies, possibly of American soldiers.

Lynch and six other members of the 507th Maintenance Company were taken prisoner on March 23. Iraqi television later showed a video of dead soldiers from the company, some of whom appeared to have been shot at close range. The Special Forces team, which consisted of Army Rangers, Navy Seals and Marines, reported suffering no casualties in the rescue.

Other recent key developments:

  • A convoy carrying food, fuel and medicine reached U.S. troops in northern Iraq via Turkey on Wednesday. The procession did not include weapons but did have 40 Land Rovers equipped with poles in the open rear carriage that could serve as mounts for machine guns, according to NBC News. Turkey has insisted the U.S. military cannot use its territory as a supply corridor for weapons.

  • Coalition bombing Wednesday damaged a maternity hospital and the offices of the Iraqi Red Crescent but caused no casualties, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross told CNN.

  • CNN also reported that the Rev. Jesse Jackson said he's willing to go to Iraq to help secure the release of U.S. prisoners of war. Jackson, who met with Iraqi U.N. Ambassador Mohammed Al-Douri on Wednesday, has carried out similar missions in Syria, Yugoslavia and Cuba.

  • South Korea authorized the deployment of 700 noncombat troops to the Persian Gulf, in an effort to strengthen the country's alliance with the U.S. as tensions mount in North Korea. Protesters outside the National Assembly, concerned that the U.S. may next attack North Korea, waved "Stop the War" signs and clashed with police.

  • Humanitarian aid in the form of 50,000 tons of wheat is on its way to Iraq, the Pentagon said.

  • Reports that Iraqis were firing on coalition forces from a historic mosque in Najaf were received by U.S. intelligence. That action, along with word that Iraqis were using schools to stockpile ammunitions, is against the rules of war, according to the Pentagon (see "What Are The Geneva Conventions?"). Meanwhile, Iraq's information minister has accused U.S.-led forces of damaging mosques, hospitals and schools almost since the war began. (For more on this development, check out CBSNews.com.)

  • The Pentagon said no Scud missiles or missile launchers have been found by the coalition.

  • According to a statement read on Iraqi satellite TV Wednesday by a news anchor in a military uniform, Saddam Hussein feels "victory is at hand" and warned Kurds to not cooperate with the U.S. in northern Iraq. Since Hussein did not read the statement himself, the message did little to convince U.S. intelligence that he is alive.

  • According to Iraqi government statistics, 420 civilians have been killed and 4,000 others have been injured.

    For the latest developments on the war in Iraq, check out CBSNews.com.

    — Joe D'Angelo, Corey Moss and Ethan Zindler

     For the very latest developments on the war in Iraq, check out CBSNews.com.

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