Iraqi guard crumbling: U.S. forces

U.S. forces drive toward Baghdad smashing Iraqi resistance.

U.S. troops leading the charge to Baghdad donned chemical suits Wednesday as they advanced to within 10 kilometres of the capital.

Troops have passed the so-called red zone, the outer ring of defences surrounding the city. U.S. military officials believe crossing the line could trigger a chemical attack.

Correspondents embedded with U.S. soldiers said forward units of the 3rd Infantry Division were 10 kilometres from the city's southern outskirts.

American ground forces have seized key bridges and routed two divisions of the Republican Guard, Iraq's elite forces guarding the capital.

The Medina and Baghdad divisions are "no longer credible forces," according to Maj.-Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

The army and the marines have been moving toward the capital along two routes from the Kuwaiti border. They both made major pushes north on Wednesday and by Thursday, some army units were within 35 kilometres of Baghdad.

U.S. forces were also positioned outside the Baghdad airport, a U.S. Central Command spokesman said Thursday.

Saddam International Airport is about 20 kilometers southwest of the city centre.

Iraq's information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, laughed off these reports, calling them "silly." He said U.S. troops are nowhere near Baghdad.

On the eastern prong of the attack, the 1st Marines Expeditionary Force seized the city of Kut, and smashed the Baghdad Division of the Republican Guards.

Brig.-Gen. Vincent Brooks told reporters at Central Command in Qatar that the Baghdad Division had been destroyed.

"The dagger is clearly pointed at the heart of the regime," said Brooks.

The marines easily took control of a bridge across the Tigris River at Numaniyah, rounding up surrendering Iraqi fighters, and arresting at least one who was trying to change his uniform for a plain brown robe.

To the west, the U.S. army 3rd Infantry Division shot through a gap between Karbala and a nearby lake to capture a bridge near Mussayib. Engineers defused the explosives rigged on the bridge.

Fighting at both attack points was light, and Pentagon officials said by the end of the day that another Republican Guard division, the Medina, had been reduced to an ineffective combat force.

In Baghdad, Iraqi officials called all the U.S. claims of success lies, and told a news conference that all the Republican Guard divisions were able to fight.

A U.S. military spokesman said a synchronized attack on Baghdad will eventually be launched that will include the army, marines and air force.