WASHINGTON -- The United States unleashed the biggest ground battle of the war yesterday against Iraqi forces south of Baghdad, launching a much-awaited thrust at the heart of Saddam Hussein's regime.
Fierce night fighting was reported as U.S. Army and Marine ground forces advanced on at least three separate fronts across a vast area 50 miles or more from the capital. American troops were battling some of Iraq's best-trained army units, known as the Republican Guard, including elements of the Medina, division near the city of Karbala.
For days, waves of U.S. and British aircraft and attack helicopters have fired missiles and flung hundreds of precision bombs into dug-in Guard positions, destroying artillery, tanks and other armored vehicles. The attacks were designed to cripple the main Iraqi force that stands between tens of thousands of American soldiers and the gates of Baghdad.
Three brigades of the Army's 3rd Infantry were reported to be advancing on Republican Guard units southwest of Baghdad, while the Marines were heading toward an Iraqi force well southeast of the city.
Even as the biggest ground offensive of the war was raging, new explosions rocked Hussein's government complex on the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad, which was struck repeatedly by American B-52 bombers and cruise missiles.
In Doha, Qatar, meanwhile, the first rescue of an American prisoner in Iraq was announced early today by the U.S. Central Command. The prisoner, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, 19, of Palestine, W.Va., had been listed as missing in action. A Centcom spokesman announced at 3 a.m. local time that she was safely in American hands after being held captive in Iraq. The spokesman provided no details.
Lynch, a supply clerk, was found in the Saddam Hospital in Nasiriya, in southern Iraq. She had been part of a group of Army maintenance workers who were ambushed by Iraqis on March 23 after their convoy took a wrong turn near Nasiriya.
Five Americans seized by the Iraqis were paraded on state television and are listed as prisoners of war. Six others, besides Lynch, are listed as missing in action. At least four Americans were killed in the incident.
As the second week of the war drew to a close, U.S. officials cautioned that the military push to overthrow Hussein's regime had only just begun.
"More tough fighting very likely will lie ahead," said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who again brushed aside criticism that the Pentagon had failed to send enough ground troops into the battle zone.
Rumsfeld also denied what he described as an Iraqi "rumor" that cease-fire negotiations were under way. He called the report a ploy by the Iraqi government to convince its people that Hussein would remain in power. "The only thing that the coalition will discuss with this regime is their unconditional surrender," Rumsfeld said.
Call for jihad
A new statement in Hussein's name, laced with religious language, was read hours earlier on state television, imploring Iraqis everywhere to fight a holy war, or jihad, against the U.S.-led coalition.
But Rumsfeld, noting that Hussein did not appear, hinted that Iraq's president might have been killed or incapacitated by a U.S. bomb strike on March 20. He said it was "interesting" that Hussein, who has not addressed his country, even via a recorded message, in at least eight days, did not speak.
The start of the battle for Baghdad raised the specter, once again, that desperate Iraqi defenders might use chemical or biological weapons against the advancing U.S. forces as a last resort. There have been repeated reports from American sources that Hussein's commanders have the authority to use banned weapons, such as nerve gas or mustard gas, once the American invasion force crosses an imaginary "Red Line" 50 miles from Baghdad.
As if to underscore the threat that those fears are justified, an Iraqi official issued what may have been a pre-emptive strike directed at public opinion in the Arab world and beyond. In Baghdad, Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan warned that the Americans might plant "weapons of mass destruction" inside Iraq "and then claim that they found it in some area or some shelter or some depot."
He urged other countries to reject any U.S. claims that it had found chemical or biological weapons in Iraq.
A victory over Iraq's ground forces in the escalating battle south of Baghdad would bring the American invasion troops to the outskirts of the capital, a city of 5.5 million. U.S. officials are not tipping their hand on what would happen next.
Iraq's best-trained soldiers, an elite security guard of 20,000 men known as the Special Republican Guard, are stationed inside the capital. In addition, Iraqi paramilitary units have become increasingly visible on the city streets in recent days. In their public statements, Iraqi officials have warned U.S.-led forces to prepare to face deadly urban combat.