WASHINGTON -- American troops defeated Republican Guard soldiers in a fierce skirmish for control of a crucial Euphrates River bridge south of Baghdad yesterday in the closest land action yet to the Iraqi capital.
Iraqi soldiers crouched behind hedges and brick walls, firing rocket-propelled grenades and small arms at an advancing column of U.S. tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division in the town of Hindiya, about 50 miles south of Baghdad.
At least 46 Iraqi soldiers were killed, most of them members of the Republican Guard, according to reports from the scene. One American soldier was wounded in the fighting.
The fighting was the first significant ground engagement reported between U.S. soldiers and Iraq's best-trained and -equipped troops. It was not necessarily a sign, however, that the U.S-led invasion force will soon move on the capital as it presses the campaign to remove Saddam Hussein from power.
U.S. commanders in central Iraq are still awaiting the arrival of reinforcements, including a much-delayed heavy tank division, the 4th Infantry out of Fort Hood, Texas, which has the Army's most advanced equipment. The 4th Infantry would have crossed Turkey but now is weeks away from rolling in Iraq, because much of its armor is still on ships that have yet to dock in Kuwait.
Tensions remained on a hair trigger at U.S. military checkpoints, particularly around the city of Najaf, where a suicide car-bombing killed four American soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division over the weekend.
Seven Iraqi women and children were killed by members of the 3rd Infantry at a different checkpoint near Najaf yesterday when their van failed to heed warnings to stop. Two other civilians were wounded in the incident, which is under investigation by the U.S. military.
According to U.S. officials, the American soldiers fired warning shots and then tried to fire into the vehicle's engine, but the van did not stop. A total of 13 Iraqis were in the van, all women and children.
With the war entering its 13th day, U.S. and British warplanes and missiles again bombed targets in Baghdad and hit elements of four Republican Guard divisions arrayed south of the city.
Ground fighting also raged in and around the three largest cities in southern Iraq, all still considered too dangerous for U.S. and British forces to enter in large numbers because of the presence of thousands of tenacious paramilitary fighters known as the fedayeen.
There were unconfirmed reports from northern Iraq that the Kirkuk oil fields were no longer under control of Hussein's regime. Those fields provide about 40 percent of the country's output and, if undamaged, could soon send oil flowing through a pipeline to a Turkish port on the Mediterranean.
Kurdish forces have been pushing Iraqi troops out of the Kirkuk area, and about 1,000 American paratroops landed in the vicinity last week in an attempt to preserve order. Crude oil prices rose again yesterday, with the May futures price above $30 a barrel in late trading in New York.
The U.S.-led forces now have seven Iraqi generals in custody, NBC News reported last night, and some have reportedly begun providing details on their country's stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. To date, however, no such weapons have been discovered by Americans in Iraq, the Pentagon said.
`Closer to victory'
President Bush, on a visit to the port of Philadelphia, delivered an upbeat assessment on the progress of the war, while repeating his now-familiar caution that a dangerous period lies ahead.
"Day by day, we are moving closer to Baghdad," said Bush. "Day by day, we are moving closer to victory."
There were more powerful explosions in Baghdad, including some in the vicinity of Hussein's Old Palace presidential compound. When a U.S. bomb blasted another target on the east bank of the Tigris River, it shook the foundations of the 18-story Palestine Hotel, where foreign journalists are staying.
Iraqi television, which had been knocked off the air earlier, showed video footage of Hussein and his sons meeting with aides.
U.S. officials immediately raised questions about when the images were recorded and again hinted that Hussein had been injured or killed when his compound was bombed March 20, the day the air war began.
Army Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal told a Pentagon briefing that days of U.S.-led bomb strikes on the Republican Guard have produced "a very significant weakening" in their ability to block an attack on Baghdad. A total of 3,000 precision-guided weapons had been dropped in the past four days alone, he said.
U.S. war planners believe that Iraqi generals have been moving Republican Guard units southward from positions north of Baghdad, where there is little American pressure because of Turkey's refusal to allow 60,000 U.S. soldiers to cross its territory.
Enemy still capable