U.S. force captures Hussein's `Pentagon'

Special Republican Guard flees 101st Airborne

War In Iraq

April 09, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BLACK HILL, Outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq - It took an anti-tank missile to blow a hole through the steel-reinforced wall surrounding the Special Republican Guard's headquarters at the foot of this hill overlooking the capital.

An Iraqi soldier on a roof - or perhaps two or more; in the chaos it was not clear - opened fire as Company B of the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment poured through the breach yesterday morning.

Spc. Sylvester A. Prince, 19, was among those who rushed the sprawling complex under a volley of covering fire aimed at the roof. He clambered over concrete rubble and the corpses of Iraqi soldiers, the grim results of air and artillery strikes that led up to the raid.

"They were decapitated, bloated, stinking," he said.

The American bullets that spattered off the two-story headquarters building, known as the Secretariat of the Special Republican Guard, rained concrete shards on the company, involved in its first significant fight of the war. For some of the roughly 120 soldiers, including Prince, it was their first significant fight ever.

He ticked off what he had encountered so far. "Carcasses, debris, shrapnel in my face," he said, lying in a covered walkway and aiming his rifle deeper into the Special Republican Guard's complex, described by one officer yesterday as "the Pentagon of Iraq."

"Nothing too small for me," Prince said with a smirk, deeply unimpressed. His platoon scrambled to its feet and headed toward a row of military barracks behind the headquarters building, where the pop of gunfire still erupted spasmodically.

The 3rd Battalion - fighting since Sunday with the 1st Brigade of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division - advanced methodically from the international airport, about a mile and a half from here, expanding the Army's control on the western side of Baghdad and bringing its troops ever closer to those now in the city's center.

"We're expanding and squeezing," said Maj. Frank McClary, the operations officer of the 1st Brigade's 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment.

Despite the foray of the division's tanks into the center of the city, where intense fighting continued yesterday, McClary expressed doubt that the pockets of Iraqi fighters would be suppressed soon.

"Tactically-wise, it's going to be going on for a long time," he said, as blasts of cannon fire from Bradley fighting vehicles reverberated around him. The Iraqis that they are encountering, he said, still have rocket-propelled grenades. "Personally, I think it's going to be going on until we leave this country."

He said U.S. forces now need to step up "psychological operations" to persuade Iraqis to surrender.

After having pushed through mostly open desert, the 3rd Division's larger mechanized forces turned to the 101st Airborne's infantry soldiers for the arduous job of clearing this warren of buildings that had once housed President Saddam Hussein's most loyal troops, those charged with protecting the Iraqi government.

The complex is located on the southern side of Route 8, the main road leading from the airport into the center of Baghdad. By the time the division's soldiers arrived yesterday morning - preceded by the thunderous strikes of satellite-guided missiles before dawn and, after first light, by the belching cannons of American A-10 Warthog jets firing from overhead - only small groups of Iraqi fighters remained.

"They saw the size of us," said Capt. Daniel W. Kidd, Company B's commander, "and took off."

The narrow road leading into the complex was a tableau of destruction and debris. The swollen corpse of an Iraqi in uniform lay on the ground where he fell. The walls still standing were pocked by rockets and bullets.

Staff Sgt. Anthony J. Hanlon called the initial infantry assault on the complex "the scariest thing imaginable," as the few Iraqi defenders fired on soldiers of the 101st with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. There were no casualties among the Americans.

The buildings inside, including the main headquarters, were battered shells, their beams exposed and broken. Outside the headquarters stood a statue of Hussein on a horse. Staff Sgt. Michael T. Young emerged from the building with a photograph of Hussein pinning medals on a row of officers.

Almost simultaneously, the 101st Battalion's Company D assaulted Black Hill, a man-made mound just south of the complex that rises more than 200 feet and overlooks the international airport to the west and the farthest homes of Baghdad to the east. A little to the southwest, between the hill and the airport, lies a new presidential palace, still under construction.

Since the 3rd Division seized the airport Thursday night, Iraqi forces have used the hill's commanding view to direct at least one artillery attack on the airport itself and to shoot at soldiers who have inched along Route 8 to Baghdad's city limits.

With U.S. troops now on the hill, Iraqis opened fire from three single-story houses across an irrigated field. U.S. artillery rounds exploded in the field, moving steadily closer and finally destroying two of the houses, which smoldered in the haze. An anti-tank missile flew into the third, exploding inside.

At the top of the hill stood the remains of a monument - dedicated, according to its inscription, by Hussein himself on April 10, 2001 - that had been heavily damaged. It had included a metal bas-relief portrait of Hussein and an inscription that foretold the creation of a new Iraqi civilization.

The hilltop, planted with young, half-dead trees, was cratered with the blasts of artillery rounds and strewn with jagged bits of metal. An outbuilding on the hill lay in a crushed heap.

As for Hussein's portrait, it was in the back of one of Company D's Humvees.

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