| The wreckage of an Iraqi anti-aircraft truck lies on a major highway intersection on the outskirts of Baghdad. (AFP)
Baghdad, April 5 (Reuters): Paramilitary forces, dressed in black and carrying AK-47 assault rifles and grenades, headed towards the outskirts of the Iraqi capital today or joined soldiers in full combat gear digging in around the city.
With US military spokesmen saying American forces had entered Baghdad, forces loyal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein moved into position across the city or headed south towards the battle front.
Trailers and buses full of Saddam’s Fedayeen, the black-clad paramilitary forces under the command of Saddam’s eldest son Uday, drove south on one thoroughfare.
“Move out of the way,” they shouted as they sped away from a military compound, touting AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers and clutching Chinese-made hand grenades. Armoured personnel carriers were also driving south.
Driving freely around the southern outskirts, the south east, the southwest and near the presidential palaces and the main security buildings of the Iraqi capital, Iraqi forces were preparing for battle and boarded-up shops.
The sound of heavy artillery fire could be heard from the fringes of the city, but there was no sign of US forces.
Soldiers in full combat gear and members of Saddam’s Fedayeen crouched on the corners of highways leading to the south and east. Iraqi forces appeared to be repositioning themselves constantly.
A US spokesman said early today that American forces had pushed into the heart of the battered Iraqi capital for a first time in the 17-day-old war. The push, the spokesman added, was “more than a patrol that goes in and comes back out”.
But Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf said US forces had not entered the city and had been expelled from the city’s international airport to the west.
“The film they broadcast to you is a lie,” he said of television footage showing US troops and armour on a highway with signs indicating the City Centre and Baghdad airport.
“They’re trying to deceive everyone. They’re in the outskirts of Abu Ghreib,” he told the Arabic satellite network al Jazeera, adding that they were 30-40 km from Baghdad.“This is a ploy,” he added.
The Fox News Channel in the US showed a line of tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles which it said were from the US 3rd Infantry Division and were rolling into Baghdad.
The column, moving in broad daylight and firing intermittently, passed several burning and destroyed vehicles.
The Fox News Channel footage showed few buildings on either side of the road, a large sand-coloured mosque with twin minarets and a line of larger-than-life statues but no footage of any built-up area.
An Iraqi in civilian clothes and with his hands up emerged from a grove beside the highway and lay down on the asphalt.
Fox had a correspondent with the column riding atop a Bradley.
The vehicles passed under several highway bridges. One road sign pointed to Bayaa and City Centre. Another shown later in the sequence pointed to Baghdad Airport.
The Arabic satellite network al Jazeera later carried footage of jubilant Iraqis on a highway next to the burnt-out wreckage of what looked like US armoured fighting vehicles. Roads signs there also pointed to the airport and City Centre.
US military spokesmen said rocket-propelled grenades had damaged one US tank. A second had to be abandoned in Baghdad because of mechanical failure, they added.
The southern outskirts of Baghdad looked like a war front, with scores of Iraqi soldiers and paramilitary forces heading out to confront an approaching US enemy.
Overnight raids left more government complexes in ruin.
Shops in normally busy districts, such as New Baghdad, were almost all shut, and far fewer cars were on the roads. Long queues formed at those petrol stations still open. What cars there were sped faster than usual.
Drivers, who rarely give Baghdad traffic lights much respect, ignored them completely.
Heavy artillery and rocket launchers were positioned in the Dawra area, home to the main oil refinery feeding Baghdad and an area where a US spokesman said American tanks drove early today on a reconnaissance mission. Palm trees and farms provided cover. Iraqi artillery occasionally fired to the south and southeast.
Inside the city, checkpoints were installed on the road to the airport and the paramilitary directed traffic. Heavy military gear could be seen moving on roads around the centre.
Republican Guards were seen around one presidential compound in the city. Soldiers spilled out of pick-up trucks and took up positions near main highways. US fighter jets flew overhead.
A convoy of police cars with sirens wailing drove around the centre of Baghdad. The officers inside fired AK-47s in the air and raised pictures of Saddam and Iraqi flags to celebrate what Iraqi officials said was the recapture of the airport.