A day after targeting Saddam and his two sons with bunker-busting bombs, U.S. troops mounted an air and tank assault on Baghdad to repel an Iraqi counterattack on Tuesday.
The counterattack began shortly after dawn, when more than 20 buses and trucks dropped off dozens of Iraqi foot soldiers firing assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at U.S. tanks blocking an intersection leading to a bridge over the Tigris, said Capt. Philip Wolford, a company commander with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division.
Two A-10s strafed the building tops and the street with 30mm rapid-fire cannon that reverberated across the city. Wolford asked if the jets could also hit bunkers built in a city park.
"If they can hit that bunker complex. We'll be set to go back in," Wolford told a flight controller, who was directing the pilots.
"Two ships are coming in hot," Capt. Todd Smith, the controller, replied. "How are they working for you?"
"They're a beautiful thing," Wolford said, after two strafing runs.
The A-10s had to leave to refuel, but soon British Tornado fighter jets were overhead with precision-guided bombs. Wolford called for those to hit the buildings occupied by snipers.
Around daybreak, troops with the Army's 101st Airborne Division launched an attack on a former Republican Guard headquarters about half a mile from the airport. Two Iraqis were reported killed in the gun battle. There were no U.S. casualties.
The Army had come under fire from fighters in the building.
"To stay here as much as they've been bombed and the artillery used, they either have to be dumb or have some heart," said Spec. Steven Shalloway, 21, of Kingsport, Tenn.
During Monday's assault on Baghdad, a lone B-1B bomber carried out a massive strike on what the coalition described as a "leadership target" in the upscale al-Mansour neighborhood where senior Iraqi officials, possibly including Saddam and his two sons, were believed to be meeting. U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said American intelligence learned of the high-level meeting Monday morning.
It was not clear who was killed; the strike left a smoking crater of dirt and concrete 60 feet deep and destroyed three nearby houses. Iraqi rescue workers using a bulldozer to search the rubble said that three bodies had been recovered — those of a small boy, a young woman and an elderly man — and that the death toll could be as high as 14. The woman's head had been severed from her torso.
There were no unusual security measures; a reporter was able to examine the site, talk with neighbors and watch the search without interference.
"At this point in time, I'm not aware of anyone from coalition forces that have walked the site," said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks at U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar.
"When that's possible, we'll have more information about what exactly happened there," Brooks said at a news briefing Tuesday. "Until then, we can only go with things we can gain information on. And we believe the strike was effective in hitting the target, creating the desired effect, but we don't know all the circumstances of what happened to those who were contained inside."
Brooks said it will take some time and perhaps detailed forensic work to establish who was killed.
"There's lots of digging and DNA tests involved," said a U.S. official familiar with the latest military intelligence, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The strike came on a day when U.S. forces also occupied two of Saddam's palaces southwest of the target zone and knocked down a statue of the Iraqi leader as they tried to wrest control of Baghdad from his regime.
Members of the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division hunkered down for their first night in Baghdad at the sprawling, blue-and-gold-domed New Presidential Palace, where Saddam once slept. At least a dozen Iraqis were being held in a hastily erected holding pen on the grounds.
In southeastern Baghdad, the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines took over a prison overnight, where they found U.S. army uniforms and chemical weapons suits, possibly from captured U.S. soldiers. Shortly after dawn, the Marines were attacked by Iraqis firing rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s; Marine snipers shot more than a dozen of them.
Other Marines were sent to guard a nuclear plant Tuesday. Near the airport, soldiers with the Army's 101st Airborne Division killed two Iraqis in a gunbattle at a former Republican Guard headquarters.
In the north, U.S. jets continued to hammer Iraqi positions Tuesday near the Baghdad-controlled cities of Kirkuk and Khaneqin. In the south, British forces claimed control over Basra on Monday, after battling militants there for two weeks.
In a potentially significant loss for the Iraqis, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force moved to capture Rasheed Airport in the southeast corner of Baghdad, said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks of U.S. Central Command. On the way, the Marines fought and defeated heavily armed Iraqi forces in tanks and armored personnel carriers, before moving on to the military airfield.
Central Command said Tuesday that nearly 85,000 U.S. servicemen and British troops took part in Monday's attacks in southeast Baghdad and Basra. They seized five weapons caches consisting of more than 10 tons of ordnance, including a number of missiles, and destroyed, damaged or captured two dozen tanks, along with many other military vehicles, a statement said.
The coalition has taken more than 3,500 prisoners of war since the conflict began, Central Command said.