AZIZIYAH, Iraq - Iraqi civilians streamed out of Baghdad and its surrounding cities yesterday, as U.S. Marines approaching the capital from the southeast raced ahead to farmlands just beyond the city's edge.
The bulk of the 1st Marine Division crossed the Tigris River yesterday and wheeled northward, pausing to crush a group of several hundred Iraqi soldiers who decided to stand and fight.
By nightfall, the lead units of the American force were within 25 miles of the outskirts of the capital, forming a powerful vice with the 3rd Infantry on the western side of the city. American jets crisscrossed the night sky, laying down a thunderous bombardment that lit up the horizon.
As the Marines pushed northward along Highway 6, hundreds of Iraqi civilians passed them fleeing south, cheering and encouraging the troops as they passed. It was one of the first signs of a large movement of people out of Baghdad since the American bombing began two weeks ago, and one of the warmest receptions the Americans have gotten to date.
The Iraqis crammed into buses, cars and taxis, piling out of a city they said was no longer safe. One man drove himself and his family south on a motorcycle and sidecar, another in a 1954 Dodge pickup. A third man, standing in the bed of his pickup, raced down the highway shouting the only words in English he knew.
"George Bush!" he cried, whizzing past.
The cars and buses carrying southbound Iraqis were so jammed that even some Iraqi soldiers jumped abroad, hoping to make an escape. Many Iraqis, fearful of the armada streaming past them, waved white flags, some fashioned out of bed sheets and T-shirts. One woman waved a pair of her husband's boxer shorts.
"You have saved us, you have saved us from him," exclaimed Alawih Hussein, pausing as he drove his battered red Toyota pickup south on Highway 6. Hussein's wife, who sat next to her husband, was so effusive in her joy that she had to pause several times to use an a pocket inhaler.
The outpouring by the Iraqis on yesterday marked a break with days past, when the reception offered by townspeople had often been more muted. For days, as American troops swept through the country, Iraqis often refrained from offering their opinions, fearful of reprisals, some said, especially if the Iraqi president survived. But on yesterday, as the will of the American military effort became apparent, Iraqis seemed to feel little urge to keep their emotions in check.
The warm reception, coupled with the rapid progress, lent an air of momentary jubilation to the Marine convoy. At one point earlier yesterday, the Marines were moving north at such a torrid pace that troop carriers, speeding along at 40 mph, shredded the outer skin of their tank treads. There was no resistance to speak of.
"The general has taken the leash off," said Lt. Col. Sam Strotman, pausing on a hill about 55 miles south of Baghdad. "We've got orders to go as far as we can go."
The mood changed quickly when the Marines ran into a large force of determined Iraqis guarding the approach to Aziziyah. Some officers here said the Iraqi force represented a portion of the Al Nida Division of the Republican Guard, parts of which American officials believe have retreated into the southern suburbs of Baghdad. Late last night, Marine officers said they had found a large group of tanks dug into the earth, believed to be the main Al Nida force. They began airstrikes and prepared to attack in the morning.
The fighting lasted much of the day, with the Americans calling in airstrikes from B-52 bombers, Super Cobra helicopter gunships and F/A-18 Hornet jets. By the time the Marines passed through the city in the late afternoon, the guns had fallen quiet. Buildings inside the city were still burning when the Marines finally drove through, and they passed a grim scene of black fire, empty bullet casings and young men picking through the wreckage of old cars.
Up and down Highway 6, many Iraqi soldiers had taken advantage of the chaos to flee. American soldiers reported seeing discarded military uniforms along the road. A few miles south of here, a chaotic scene unfolded on the roadside when a group of Marines stopped and searched three passenger buses.
Checking identification cards, the Americans pulled aside about 30 Iraqi men whom they claimed were solders. At noontime, those prisoners sat in a makeshift barbed-wire prison. The rest of the Iraqis, perhaps 300 of them, sat huddled on the roadside, yelling and shouting at the Americans to let them through.
The Marines, with only one Arabic translator at their disposal, tried to insist on an orderly process of allowing the Iraqis to board their buses. But groups of Iraqi men, eager to get home, dashed to the bus anyway.
"Sit down and shut up," screamed one American sergeant to an uncomprehending Iraqi man.
Under a sweltering sun, many Iraqis, including an elderly man named Hussein, lost their tempers. Hussein, who had left Baghdad two days earlier, finally exploded in frustration to a Marine sergeant.
"This is between you and Saddam," Hussein said, jabbing a finger. "You can have him. Do anything you want with him. But let me go home."