For the third time in as many days, an Army column roared into the heart of the Iraqi capital, this time storming Saddam Hussein's newest palace and briefly surrounding the Information Ministry and the Al-Rashid, probably the city's best known hotel. And this time, Marines joined in the incursion, coming at the city in a strike to the east of the Army force.
The show of massive force is part of a plan to eliminate resistance from Saddam's forces piece by piece, in hopes of avoiding an all-out battle for Baghdad, home to some 5 million Iraqis.
At the Pentagon, senior defense officials said the assault was meant to demonstrate that invading troops can go where they want, when they want.
They said it was not an effort to occupy the city, or even a piece of it. Rather, it is a message to Iraqi forces that their resistance is futile, one official said. To the population, it can serve to counterbalance regime propaganda, in which officials continued to insist Monday morning that they were repelling invading forces.
One difference in the latest thrust into the capital, following forays Saturday and Sunday, is that Americans might stay a bit longer, one official said, adding it might be a matter of hours, not days. Officials stressed that the commander on the ground had the ability and mobility to decide what he will do next — move around the area, or move along.
"I think ... the military commanders will slowly but surely take on various parts of the city, go in and clean it out and make it safe for the Iraqi civilians that want to live there," Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had said hours before Monday's assault.
On Sunday, troops began flying into the captured international airport outside Baghdad, destroyed a Republican Guard headquarters and began to deploy a force of Iraqi exiles and dissidents who are to make up the core of a new national army.
U.S. soldiers and Marines surrounded Baghdad to try to prevent regime leaders from getting out and Iraqi troops reinforcements from getting in, Pace said in a round of television interviews Sunday. He acknowledged it wasn't "an impenetrable cordon" around the city.
"It is certainly true that we have huge amounts of combat power around the city right now, and that we have over a thousand planes in the air every day," he said. "So if it moves on the ground and it takes aggressive action, it's going to get killed."
But CBS News Analyst Col. (Ret.) Mitch Mitchell believes several key leadership figures in the regime have already escaped, "headed for cross-border sanctuaries or hiding places within Iraq.
"It's not the fault of our military forces who are doing all the fighting on the ground," says Mitchell. "They are performing magnificently.
"If there had been more divisions on the ground when the attacks commenced, the campaign would have been more rapid. Baghdad would have been encircled much earlier. We could have captured or killed many more of the regime officials and their enforcers."
Asked what tactic commanders planned in the coming battle to unseat Saddam, Pace said it was essentially more of the same but in a smaller space.
Air power will shape the battlefield and destroy Iraqi forces and equipment; ground troops will force Iraqi fighters to move, then air strikes will attack again, Pace said.
"They feed on each other," he said. "It is similar tactics, air and ground coordination, but in a much more confined space."
He said the airlift of several hundred soldiers from the opposition Iraqi National Congress brought people who could help fight the regime.
INC officials said the force also could help distribute humanitarian aid, serve as a bridge between coalition troops and local populations and help root out paramilitaries who have been fighting U.S.-led forces and terrorizing civilians.
U.S. Central Command reported that 2,000 to 3,000 Iraqi fighters were killed in the first thrust — a sweep Saturday by the 3rd Infantry Division through the city's southwestern industrial section.
So far, Pace said, coalition forces have destroyed two Republican Guard divisions that were guarding approaches to the capital and half of the tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers of the country's other four divisions. Divisions that numbered between 6,000 and 12,000 men each, now probably can put together only about 1,000 people in any one location at any time, he said.
"But that does not mean they're finished," he said. "There's still fight left in them, potentially, and there's still a potential for a more difficult combat before this is finished."
Contacts continue with Iraqi commanders to try to get them to surrender, including "letters directly from" U.S. war commander Gen. Tommy Franks, Pace said. "But as of yet, we have not had a senior official in these divisions and corps surrender."
Official have said American forces might stop short of storming Baghdad and instead isolate it while the makings of a new national government are put in place. They have described the plan as neither an all-out fight for the city, as many have predicted, nor a conventional siege.
Over time, the thinking goes, Saddam and his inner circle would completely lose their ability to communicate with their remaining military forces, and would be unable to control anything except their own defenses.
Meanwhile leafleting and broadcasts to Iraqi troops and civilians would keep sending the message that the invading force — not Saddam — is in control, further weakening support for the regime.
Although the main coalition force remains outside the city, the regime is still vulnerable to special operations troops inside the capital who are hunting for leadership figures, pointing out bombing targets and possibly persuading Iraqi soldiers not to fight.