Marines move within 70 miles of Baghdad

Column's advance ends 5 days of waiting in desert

War In Iraq


HILLA, Iraq - The main column of U.S. Marines set to attack Iraq's capital raced northward yesterday, rolling on the country's main highway to within 70 miles of Baghdad and drawing only minimal resistance.

The convoy, including dozens of tanks and about 14,000 combat troops, began its journey in the Iraqi desert and ended 40 miles away, along the newly formed front lines from which Iraqi soldiers had retreated hours before.

Night fell to sounds of U.S. artillery bombarding the remnants of an Iraqi force that troops here said had been decimated by a U.S. advance team early yesterday. Two Iraqi missiles streaked across the afternoon sky, fired from a site a few miles up the road. Otherwise, the Iraqi guns were silent.

The Marines took up their positions as quickly as they could climb out of their vehicles, setting up pickets and digging foxholes along a newly formed perimeter, and shutting off their lights as soon as the sun had set. Iraqi soldiers had fallen back, they said, and taken up positions less than four miles away.

"We're in bad-guy country," Col. John Pomfret said, surveying this newly captured piece of Iraqi territory. "I like it."

The swift movement of the troops was made possible by the furious battle overnight, in which the Marines dispatched a battalion of Iraqi soldiers. An American standing at the farthest edge of the U.S. advance said that the fighting had begun Sunday night and lasted until the morning, and that the Iraqi soldiers had been either captured or chased away.

The Iraqis seemed to have left in a hurry. U.S. troops arriving at the scene found an array of ammunition, including shoulder-fired anti-aircraft rockets and a pair of surface-to-surface missiles.

The two missiles, 3 feet in diameter and 25 feet long, were being hidden aboard a freight truck in a rural neighborhood outside the city. The missiles, which appeared to be short-range Frogs, bore the recent stamps of United Nations weapons inspectors. U.S. troops said the placement of the missiles in an area populated by civilians suggested that Saddam Hussein was hoping to complicate U.S. plans to destroy his arsenal.

The advance of one of the main salients aimed at the Iraqi capital ended a five-day hiatus that had prompted questions about the U.S. strategy in Iraq. The Marines gathered here, mostly young men, want to move forward, and five days of waiting in the desert had begun to gnaw.

"I trained six months for this thing, and now we're doing it," said one Marine before yesterday's advance began. "I want to finish the job so I can go home."

Indeed, a kind of electricity seemed to fill the air as the U.S. forces moved northward. At last, Baghdad was getting closer again, and everyone seemed to feel it. Marine officers strutted about their headquarters compound, set up hours before in an abandoned building at the highway's edge. U.S. jets streaked freely about the skies.

The horizon, too, offered its own display of U.S. power. To the left, an Iraqi city glimmered in the distance. Then, with an airstrike, its lights faded black. To the right, a huge orange glow rose in the darkness, illuminating the night sky, until it, too, shrank to nothing. Seconds later, a pair of U.S. jets skylarked to the south.

The Marines set up fresh bivouacs across a wide swath of territory here, but it was unclear how long they would sit still. Officers said that they didn't know but that they were on orders to be able to move on 24 hours' notice.

The advance of the Marines yesterday left them somewhat farther from Baghdad than the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, which is advancing from the southwest. As the two columns advance, their respective roles appeared to emerge: the 3rd Infantry Division as the main wedge, with the 1st Marines protecting their right flank. U.S. officers say both divisions appear to be headed for significant concentrations of Iraqi soldiers soon.

Driving north into the Iraqi heartland revealed a changed landscape, politically as well as physically. Bullet-riddled cars gave evidence of the firefights that had unfolded on the way. Desert turned to farmland. For the first time in this convoy's advance from the Kuwaiti border, ordinary Iraqis could be seen walking about in groups.

But there was little contact. In the desert, one Bedouin farmer after another had lifted his hand in greeting to the passing U.S. soldiers. Now, at the edge of Iraqi farm country, the locals appeared to be keeping to themselves. No one waved; few men even looked up.

The change did not go unnoticed.

"Hey," said Maj. Mark Stainbrook, "did you see that? None of the Iraqis are waving to us anymore."

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