The Iraqis were pummeled by U.S. forces now closing in on the capital from two sides: To the east, the advancing Marines are now within 30 miles of the city's outskirts; to the west, the Army's Third Infantry has lead elements within 20 miles of Iraq's capital.
There was little sign of Iraqi dead and only handfuls of prisoners, suggesting the soldiers – probably by the thousands – had abandoned their equipment and fled, whether to melt away or fight another day remains to be seen.
Even so, the Pentagon warned of "a very difficult fight ahead in Baghdad. We are not expecting to drive into Baghdad suddenly and seize it," Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal told a Pentagon news conference.
Though two divisions – the Medina and Baghdad – were reported to have been largely eliminated, parts of four other Republican Guard divisions to the east, north and west of Baghdad still must be destroyed.
And there is still the threat of chemical weapons – none have been fired yet, but CBS News Correspondent David Martin reports the Iraqis can be overheard on their radios talking among themselves about using them.
In other developments:
In an all-out assault that began Tuesday night, the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division and the U.S. 1st Marine Expeditionary Force launched a two-pronged attack toward Baghdad, and both reported breakthroughs as units entered the so-called "red zone" within range of the guns and missiles defending the capital.
Marine helicopter pilots and other troops were advised to be ready to don chemical suits at a moment's notice.
U.S. 3rd Infantry units surged past the strategic city of Karbala, about 40 miles from Baghdad, targeting an estimated 2,000 paramilitary fighters. Army units seized a Euphrates River bridge at Mussayib, northwest of Karbala, with little or no resistance, as they advanced through the Karbala Gap.
To the east, U.S. Marines captured an important bridge over the Tigris River near Kut.
"What we're seeing is a multipronged approach," said Lt. Mark Kitchens, a U.S. Central Command spokesman. "The noose is quickly tightening around the neck of this regime."
Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf called reports of a U.S. breakthrough near Baghdad "illusions." As for reports of U.S. troops crossing the Tigris River, he replied: "We welcome them, but this is not true."
Iraqi TV aired two new statements from Saddam Hussein, in which the Iraqi leader reportedly said victory was near and warned Iraqi Kurds working with U.S. forces not to "do something that you'll regret." Saddam was later shown on TV in silent footage.
Elsewhere, Central Command said U.S. forces in Najaf were being fired on from the Ali Mosque, one of the most important Shiite Muslim sites. They did not return fire. U.S. commanders say they have been trying to minimize damage to religious sites.
During a brief visit Wednesday to Belgrade, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said coalition military advances in Iraq are a "success" that will lead to victory in the war.
Powell later visited Turkey, where he reached agreement with Ankara on allowing the United States to ship food, fuel and medicine — but not weapons — through Turkish territory to U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
Powell and Turkish leaders also agreed on an "early warning" system to avert friction between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds — an accord designed to block Turkey from sending its forces into northern Iraq.
Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television reported that about 30 Yemeni volunteers, carrying AK-47s, arrived in Baghdad on Wednesday. Iraq's embassy in Jordan, said 5,500 Iraqis have obtained temporary passports to return home.
The International Red Cross, meanwhile, said some of its staff members saw the bodies of dozens of people — including women and children — in Hillah, east of Karbala. At least 280 injured people were being treated at a hospital there, the Red Cross said.
Iraqi officials said Tuesday that U.S. Apache helicopters attacked a residential neighborhood in Hillah, killing 33 people and injuring more than 300. The U.S. Central Command said it was investigating the claim.
In northern Iraq, Baghdad's forces shelled a village in the Kurdish autonomous region Wednesday. U.S. air strikes hit Iraqi positions 100 miles north of Baghdad and, farther north, prompted Iraqi withdrawal toward the city of Kirkuk.
The first significant wartime transit of military equipment from Turkey — including more than 40 nearly combat-ready vehicles — reached Kurdish areas Wednesday.