An American armored brigade tore into central Baghdad on Monday in a daring daylight thrust that seized one of Saddam Hussein’s prized residences, the presidential palace on the banks of the Tigris River. Iraqi soldiers in the compound swam to the far bank of the river to flee the advancing U.S. troops.
Iraqi soldiers garrisoning this part of the capital suddenly found themselves on the front lines. From our position, we could see several Bradley armored personnel carriers engaging troops on the river bank.
In all, more than 70 M1 Abrams tanks and 60 Bradley fighting vehicles took part in the lightning thrust by the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, supported by A-10 Warthog tank buster jets and pilotless drones providing air cover against mostly disorganized resistance.
The Americans who advanced along the river directed heavy machine gun fire at Iraqi emplacements across the Tigris. As the gunfire set a fuel store ablaze, several Iraqi soldiers jumped into the water to save themselves. The last man barely made it.
In the skies above Baghdad, A-10 jets provided cover for the Americans on the ground. The Iraqis did manage to fire on the invaders and we saw them hit the Bradleys, but as far as we could tell the ammunition bounced off.
Monday’s incursion was much broader than the raid American forces mounted on Saturday.
On Monday, there was the sound of fighting from the east, south and west, and we can truly say that we were watching the battle for the center of Iraqi capital unfold.
AT THE PALACE
U.S. Army columns moved northeast to the heart of Baghdad and the newest and main presidential palace, located on the Tigris, which divides the capital. The gold- and blue-domed palace, which is near Saddam’s destroyed Baath Party headquarters, apparently was mainly a residential site rather than an administrative office.
Soldiers from the American 3rd Infantry had little difficulty in taking the place over and inspecting its luxurious interior. Some of the U.S. troops felt confident enough to rest. Others used the toilets, rifled through documents in the bombed-out compound and helped themselves to ashtrays, pillows, gold-painted Arab glassware and other souvenirs.
Back at the river bank, their colleagues were emerging from their Bradleys. They, too, appeared surprisingly relaxed. The Iraqis, on the other hand, were fleeing — at least one of them still in his underwear.
Not all of the Iraqi soldiers got away. A few were taken prisoner.
Minutes later, the Iraqi information minister, Mohammad Said al-Sahhaf, appeared at our hotel to try to paint a very different picture. But his words flew in the face of what everyone had seen.
“We besieged them and killed most of them, and I think we will finish them soon,” Al-Sahhaf said.
“We will slaughter all of these invaders and their tombs will be here in Iraq.”
(John Irvine is an correspondent for Britain’s Independent Television News, a partner of NBC News.)