Three-Pronged Assault Paved Way to Baghdad

Col. David Perkins studied the 200-yard concrete and steel bridge at Hindiyah, unfazed by the Iraqi soldiers shooting at him from the other side of the Euphrates. No, he told his men, this bridge wasn't worth taking.

Perkins, commander of the Army's 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, sent a few armored vehicles part way across, just to give the Iraqis the impression he wanted to seize the river crossing 50 miles south of Baghdad.

The March 31 feint, designed to draw Iraqi troops down river from the spot where the division actually wanted to cross, was the opening maneuver of what would become a stunningly swift push to Baghdad.

In four days, four Army brigades would sprint 50 miles and four U.S. Marine brigades nearly 100 miles to the gates of Baghdad, setting the stage for this week's assaults inside the capital.

The advance, at a cost of fewer than 10 U.S. combat deaths, would silence complaints on television by retired generals that the war was being mismanaged, and provoke another kind of talk.

"The U.S. advance on Baghdad is something that military historians and academics will pore over in great detail for many years to come," British Air Marshal Brian Burridge said Monday. "They will examine the dexterity, the audacity and the sheer brilliance of how the U.S. put their plan into effect."

The speed of the assault gave Iraqi units little opportunity to retreat and regroup; the U.S. advance quickly gobbled up the Iraqi rear.

It began as a three-pronged assault.

Part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force was in the center, driving north between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. To the east, the rest of the unit advanced along the Tigris. On the west, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division drove north along the west bank of the Euphrates. The advance involved fewer than 40,000 men -- far smaller than the Iraqi force guarding Baghdad.

Every night, strike aircraft hunted down Iraqi tanks, artillery and command centers, laying the groundwork for the next day's advance. Deprived of their equipment by the relentless bombardment, Republican Guard troops began abandoning their positions.

Here and there, U.S. forces met spirited but often poorly organized resistance.

At dawn on Tuesday, April 1, the 4th Marine Regiment -- the middle prong of the advance -- moved on Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad, and encountered Iraqis armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns.

"The Iraqis were pretty determined," said Lt. Col. B.P. McCoy. In fighting that lasted until mid-afternoon, at least 75 Iraqi troops were killed.

To the west, the 3rd Infantry Division reached the Karbala Gap between the Euphrates and a reservoir -- a natural place for Iraqi forces to try to stop the advance.

Serious resistance never materialized.

On Wednesday, April 2, one battalion held off a small force of Iraqis while the rest of the 1st Brigade poured through. By midmorning, it reached the bridge over the Euphrates at Musayyib, just 40 miles southwest of Baghdad.

"First we destroyed all the near-side forces," Lt. Col. Ernest "Rock" Marcone said. "Then with artillery and aviation we destroyed much of the far side."

Two tank companies and one infantry company rolled across to put down what little resistance remained.

Along the Tigris that Wednesday, Marines in the eastern prong of the advance moved on the town of Numaniyah. Corpses lay under blankets by the side of the road. The ground was littered with discarded Iraqi uniforms.

The Marines approached the Numaniyah military barracks with care, but the buildings were empty.

By Thursday, April 3, the Marines in the center prong veered northeast toward Kut, a small city on the Tigris. There, they joined the eastern prong of the advance in a powerful thrust toward Baghdad.

At Kut, Baath Party fighters and Republican Guard soldiers made a stand, but as fire from the Marines thinned their numbers, a few Iraqis tried a desperate assault.

"They came charging in a human wave, 10 or 15 guys," said McCoy, the battalion commander. "We mowed them down."

Two Marines were killed in the engagement.

That evening, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division reached the outskirts of Baghdad, and its 1st Brigade attacked the international airport. Fighting grew chaotic as Iraqi forces counterattacked, but by dusk the action subsided. Soldiers methodically secured the airport even as Iraq's information minister insisted Iraqi troops still held it.

The Marines, too, moved to within sight of Baghdad's skyline. From their camp on Friday night, they watched the fireworks as U.S. planes bombed targets inside the city. Within hours, they would be firing across a marsh at foreign partisans who came to Baghdad to fight for Saddam.

By Saturday morning, U.S. forces had surrounded Baghdad and the ground attack on the city began.

In the days since, U.S. troops have moved from engaging in running battles and pinpoint strikes on the city's outskirts to attacking the very center of Baghdad.