CAMP DOHA, Kuwait, April 3 (UPI) -- Outmatched, outflanked and outgunned, troops of the Iraqi regular army and Republican Guard fought on with clumsy desperation Thursday as the jaws of the two U.S. armored thrusts closed around them and the U.S. 3rd division reported, "We have the Baghdad skyline in sight."
The U.S. 3rd divisions multiple-launch rocket systems were firing directly into Baghdad's international airport and defensive positions in the city's western suburbs.
Iraq's IVth army corps, anchored by its 10th armored division that has fought better than many Republican Guard units, was cut off and surrounded by U.S. troops, and U.S. artillery and warplanes pounded the escape routes back into Baghdad for the remainder of the Iraqi forces.
But not all the Iraqi troops have been caught outside the capital. The Adnan Republican Guard mechanized infantry division, recently moved south from the northern cities of Mosul and Tikrit, was reported to be digging in to defend Baghdad's western suburbs and Saddam International Airport. Elements of the al-Nida Republican Guard armored division, also formerly north of Baghdad, were also reported moving into Baghdad, coalition military sources said.
Hard fighting lies ahead for the coalition forces, and a crucial decision – that may have to be taken in Washington rather than by coalition commanders on the ground or at the Qatar headquarters. The question is what the do about Baghdad.
Coalition officials in the region prefer, United Press International has learned, to copy the "softly-softly" British tactics in Iraq's second city of Basra. The British have now spent 12 days running a gentle siege that never sealed off the city, allows civilians and food to come and go (after being searched), and worked to restore water and power supplies. At the same time, with raids and targeted air and artillery strikes, the British picked away at the command posts and headquarters of the Baath Party, the fedayeen and the remaining military forces inside the city.
"We are deliberately not taking the city yet, but we are not destroying it either – and we are starting to get more and more support and information from the civilian population," said British spokesman Group Captain Al Lockwood. "In the end, they are what this war is all about."
The alternative to the British method is for a full-scale assault on Baghdad "on the run," as the Marines and 3rd Infantry use the momentum of the stunning advances in the past 48 hours and take advantage of Iraqi disorganization. This option is apparently being urged by Pentagon officials.
The decision, which must be taken soon, may hinge on the intelligence estimates of the power structure inside Baghdad. If Saddam Hussein and his general staff remain alive and in command of their defenses, a full-scale assault could be slow, bloody and costly in civilian casualties.
There is as yet no certainty about Saddam's health or location, though Kuwait is filled with rumors that high-ranking Iraqis, including members of Saddam's family, have been seen in the neighboring Syrian capital of Damascus. Coalition intelligence officers maintain, however, they see little sign of a coherent Iraqi command system.
The siege-or-assault decision, which also implies important political decisions in Washington about whether or not to establish an interim governing authority for Iraq outside a besieged capital, cannot be delayed long.
On the western side of Baghdad, advance units of the U.S. 3rd division pushed to within artillery range of the Iraqi capital Thursday morning, after seizing a key double bridge across the Euphrates south of Fallujah Wednesday.
One span of the double bridge, carrying the main six-lane auto route west from Baghdad toward Jordan and Syria, was destroyed. But the other span withstood desperate Iraqi artillery fire, and U.S. combat engineers crossed the river under fire in rubber boats to dismantle the demolition wires. That left the 3rd division with a three-lane highway to Baghdad.
On the eastern side of Baghdad, the Marines advancing up the Tigris were less than 30 miles from Baghdad after capturing a key bridge at al-Numaniya, about 15 miles north of Kut. By Thursday morning, U.S. combat helicopters were operating from the captured al-Numaniya air base.