Everybody leads with the U.S.'s big moves toward Baghdad and the first head-on confrontations between U.S. troops and Iraq's Republican Guard divisions. The U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division moved against the Medina Division in the Karbala Gap, about 50 miles south of Baghdad and within the so-called "red-zone" demarking the capital's main line of defense. At the same time, a Marines division is moving against Republican Guard units farther east.
According to the latest available reports, the Marines and GIs are heavily engaged but haven't yet met effective resistance and are advancing quickly. Marines have grabbed the main bridge across the Tigris, the last natural obstacle to Baghdad.
One likely reason for the so-far lopsided fight is that, according to the Pentagon, air attacks have knocked off about 60 percent of the Republican Guards' fighting capacity. Though FYI: As Wall Street Journal notes, those numbers are "notoriously unreliable." (By the way, remember last week's 1,000-vehicle Iraqi convoy? Today's Journal says, officials have "concluded the convoy never existed.")
The Journal has another possible, and not mutually exclusive, explanation: Republican Guards may be trying to melt away and save themselves for a guerrilla-style campaign. Apparently they've abandoned many of their tanks and are instead tooling around in Mogadishu-style "technicals," trucks mounted with light weapons—hopefully not including the effective Russian Kornet anti-tank missiles. The New York Times doesn't have these details but does go high with various Iraqi officials warning that they plan to stretch guerrilla fighting into the summer.
The NYT says that rather than making a headlong dash toward Baghdad, the attacking units will take their time and pulverize the Republican Guard units.
Everybody fronts the rescue ofJessica Lynch, a 19-year-old private who had been taken prisoner when her maintenance company was overrun 10 days ago. Special ops troops snatched her from a hospital in Nasiriyah, where she was found with two broken legs and a broken arm. The Washington Post says that the Pentagon got Lynch's location from "a CIA tip." A Marines spokesman told the Los Angeles Times that the raid also uncovered the bodies of two American soldiers at the hospital. (According to early-morning reports, 11 bodies were found at the hospital—some are believed to be American.)
The Post and USAT both say that Iraqi soldiers have largely abandoned their efforts to hold Najaf, a strategically situated town about 50 miles south of Baghdad: The U.S. 101st Airborne entered Najaf yesterday and were greeted by a fair number of cheering residents.
In a good sign, USA Today notices that the U.S. presence in Najaf includes nine teams of civil-affairs soldiers, who, as one officer put it, are going door-to-door, "checking with people, making sure they're OK, and seeing if there are any injuries."
A piece inside the Post says that the military is focusing on the drive north and is staying away from any "large-scale" efforts to pacify southern Iraq. "Ideally," notes the Journal, "the U.S. would like to have another armored division traveling behind the Third Infantry."
The NYT in a piece datelined "Kuwait" says that British forces have begun moving into the suburbs of Basra where they're getting increasing support from residents there. The Post's Keith Richburg, who's been hanging around Basra, gives a different impression. Richburg suggests that the British incursions have been minimal and says that the Baath party is still plenty in control. "There's been absolutely no uprising," said one resident.
A piece stuffed onto page A24 of the Post says that the U.S.'s bombing campaign, while still careful not to hit civilians, has begun to loosen the reins a bit. Among the targets now allowed to be hit are those labeled "HCD," or high collateral damage. Another Post piece, citing a wire report, says that U.S. planes appeared to have bombed a residential neighborhood in the town of Hilla, and killed at least 11 civilians, mostly kids.
The NYT notices that groups of Arab men are angling to get into Iraq and fight the U.S. The Times notes that many of the guys aren't getting very far—most Arab governments are stopping them. (Yesterday's LAT had a similar story and reported that Jordan says about 5,000 people have crossed into Iraq since the war began.)
Everybody notes that the Iraqi government announced yesterday that Saddam was going to give a speech—then he flaked, and the speech was read by Iraq's information minister. As the papers essentially say in unison, the move "fueled speculation" that Saddam may be in bad shape. The NYT, though, is more forgiving, calling Saddam's absence "understandable"—after all, the Times explains, the U.S. and Britain have been trying very hard to figure out where he is and knock him off.
A front-page admission in the LAT says that yesterday's Page One photo was actually a composite of two images. The staffer who took the photos and altered them has been canned.
USAT fronts another one of those always insightful, and never spun, profiles of President Bush's war-time personality. Citing "friends," the paper concludes that the war is "consuming Bush's days and weighing heavily on him." Thankfully, he's received advanced training that keeps him focused: "His history degree from Yale makes him mindful of the importance of the moment."