BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqi forces staged a major counterattack Tuesday morning, sending buses and trucks full of fighters across the Tigris River in an attempt to overrun U.S. forces holding a strategic intersection on the western side of Baghdad.
At least 50 Iraqi fighters were killed, said Capt. Philip Wolford of Marysville, Ohio, a company commander with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. Two U.S. soldiers were reported wounded, one seriously, by snipers on rooftops.
U.S. troops strafed the Iraqis from A-10 Warthog attack planes and opened up with artillery and mortar fire. About an hour after the firefight began, Wolford moved his tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles forward again and retook the intersection.
Wolford's unit then began pursuing the remaining Iraqi defenders.
U.S. tank-borne forces stormed into central Baghdad on Monday, seizing a presidential palace on the west bank of the Tigris and turning it into a base of operations.
Col. David Perkins of the 3rd Infantry Division said about 500 Iraqi forces took part in the counterattack. They were a combination of special Republican Guard, Fedayeen and Baath Party loyalists — "a lot of civilian-dressed fighters," he said.
In the past two days, the Army has seen few Iraqis give up. Many have fought to the death, which seems to indicate these are hard-core loyalists.
Iraqi fighters also appeared to be probing U.S. defenses in other areas, with short exchanges of fire.
"We are continuing to maintain our ability to conduct operations around and in Baghdad. As regime forces are located, they are being attacked," said Navy Capt. Frank Thorp, a U.S. Central Command spokesman. "We are continuing to expand areas of influence in the city, and removing them from regime control."
A Reuters cameraman and a Spanish TV cameraman were killed and at least three other journalists were injured Tuesday when their hotel in central Baghdad was fired on, apparently by a U.S. tank. The Americans said they were retaliating against snipers shooting at them from the roof of the Palestine Hotel, where many foreign reporters covering the war are staying.
Also, the Arab TV network Al-Jazeera reported that a U.S. plane attacked its office on the banks of the Tigris River, killing a reporter.
Explosions, the thud of shells landing, anti-aircraft and machine-gun fire and the drone of aircraft filled the air in Baghdad at midmorning Tuesday.
For the first time since the war began, residents of the capital could see, rather than just hear, allied aircraft. A lone fighter jet flew over Baghdad, swerving, diving and, at times, causing a boom that rocked the city.
State television went off the air around mid-morning. Many residents were hunkered down in their homes. But some civilians seemed to casually go about their business with a Kalashnikov in hand.
Traffic built up toward the north of the city and thousands of people continued to flee Baghdad to the relative safety of the north and northeast. They fled in all sorts of vehicles — buses, trucks, minibuses and pickup trucks — and took food, clothes, mattresses, blankets and kitchen utensils. Some cars sagged under the weight. Others were so battered they broke down on the road, worsening the already bumper-to-bumper congestion.
Long lines formed at gas stations. Some ran out of gas and closed; others were taken over by the military.
Uncollected garbage piled up in some sections of the city.
The counterattack began shortly after dawn, when more than 20 buses and trucks dropped off dozens of Iraqi foot soldiers firing assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at U.S. tanks blocking an intersection leading to a bridge over the Tigris, Wolford said.
Two A-10s strafed the building tops and the street with 30mm rapid-fire cannon that reverberated across the city. Wolford asked if the jets could also hit bunkers built in a city park.
"If they can hit that bunker complex. we'll be set to go back in," Wolford told a flight controller, who was directing the pilots.
"Two ships are coming in hot," Capt. Todd Smith, the controller, replied. "How are they are working for you?"
"They're a beautiful thing," Wolford said, after two strafing runs.
The A-10s had to leave to refuel, but soon British Tornado fighter jets were overhead with precision-guided bombs. Wolford called for those to hit the buildings occupied by snipers.
Around daybreak, troops with the Army's 101st Airborne Division launched an attack on a former Republican Guard headquarters about half a mile from the airport. Two Iraqis were reported killed in the gun battle. There were no U.S. casualties.
The Army had come under fire from fighters in the building.
"To stay here as much as they've been bombed and the artillery used, they either have to be dumb or have some heart," said Spec. Steven Shalloway, 21, of Kingsport, Tenn.
The Americans secured a hill outside the airport overlooking a residential neighborhood and turned on loudspeakers telling people to stay in their homes to avoid any crossfire.