US troops accelerated their advance toward the Iraqi capital Wednesday after making gains in their first major ground battle with the elite Iraqi Republican Guard.
US Marine troops crossed a major bridge over the Tigris river near Kut, a key central Iraqi city 170 kms to southeast of Baghdad, after heavily bombing positions held by the Republican Guard
The advance on the eastern flank came at a time when US troops secured all exit roads of the city of Karbala, about 100 kms to the south of Baghdad, and continued its thrust northward.
Backed by warplanes, Apache attack helicopters and furious artillery barrage, the US 3rd Infantry launched a strong attack on the shiite holy city of Kerbala at midnight.
It took only three hours for the US troops to secure the perimeter of the city, although it was originally estimated that the operation could last at least one day.
The US troops continued advancing northward after securing all exit roads of Karbala, without entering the city.
US military planners have said that they would avoid being bogged down in street-to-street fighting, and instead would secure a bridge over the nearby Euphrates river to pave the way for the following armored vehicles to move through.
The fighting in Karbala, the last major hurdle on the road to the Iraqi capital, was the first major engagement between US troops and Iraq's best equipped Republican Guard.
US officials said that US troops have dramatically weakened the combat capability of the Republican Guard after relentless bombardments in the past 14 days since the start of the war.
The renewed US advance toward Baghdad came after a halt imposed by the US troops last week in order to wait for the much-needed supplies amid stiff Iraqi resistance.
Near Diwaniyah, US marines on Tuesday fought a ferocious ground battle as long as eight hours with the Iraqi forces, killing at least 80 Iraqi soldiers and capturing more than 40, US officials said.
Iraqi TV said late Tuesday that at least 23 coalition soldiers were killed and 35 tanks, six armored carriers and one Apache helicopter of the coalitions forces were destroyed.
While the US ground forces were edging toward Baghdad, the coalition air forces continued devastating bombardment Wednesday on the capital city, home to 5 million people.
Thunderous explosions rocked Baghdad at 3:14 a.m. (0014 GMT) Wednesday, leaving parts of the downtown area in flames and thick smoke. One of Presidential Palaces and a building housing the International telephone exchanges were hit in the latest attacks.
Fierce fighting was also reported in other major Iraqi cities, including Basra, Najaf and Mosul, which have been also under repeatedly coalition airstrikes in the past two weeks.
Meanwhile, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on Tuesday evening issued a statement calling on all Iraqis and Muslims across the world to join a Jihad, a holy war, against US and British "invaders."
In a speech read by Iraqi Information Minister Muhammed Saeed Sahaf, Saddam denounced the US-led war on Iraq as "an aggression of the religion, the wealth, the honor and the soul and an aggression on the land of Islam."
With the decisive final battle for the control of Baghdad looming, the United States reiterated its determination to unseat Saddam.
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made it clear Tuesday that the only way out for Saddam is "unconditional surrender."
"There will be no outcome to this war that leaves Saddam Hussein and his regime in power," Rumsfeld told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.