An Army column of Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles made the first major U.S. incursion into Baghdad this morning, driving through the middle of the city to demonstrate that the capital is no longer firmly under President Saddam Hussein's control.

The column of more than 40 vehicles from the 3rd Infantry Division entered Baghdad from the south and skirted downtown before heading west to connect with other elements of the Army's V Corps based at the international airport beyond the city limits, according to U.S. military officials at Central Command headquarters.

"The message really is to, in a way, put a bit of an exclamation point on the fact that coalition troops are in fact in the vicinity of Baghdad, do in fact have the ability to come into the city at places of their choosing and demonstrate to the Iraqi leadership that they do not have control in a fashion that they continue to say they do on their television," said U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr.

The operation, brazenly conducted during daylight for maximum visibility, saw two Army task forces practically reach the banks of the Tigris River, where it makes its sharpest bend into the heart of Baghdad, he said.

"I think that it was very clear to the people of Baghdad that coalition forces were in the city. That image is important," Renuart said at the daily press briefing at Central Command headquarters here. "Being in the daytime was a very clear statement to the Iraqi regime as well that we can move at times and places of our choosing, even into their capital city."

Hussein's government responded to the swift advance with rhetoric as well as force.

Iraq's information minister, Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf, said today that Baghdad was firmly under Iraqi control. He denied reports that U.S. troops had reached the city center and said Iraqi troops had defeated U.S. forces at Baghdad's airport overnight.

"Everything is okay," Sahhaf said. In a second appearance later in the day, he argued that the U.S. television videos being shown of the raid were actually made south of the city.

Along the 25-mile route through Baghdad, U.S. troops from two Army task forces faced pockets of "very intense fighting" from Iraqi irregular forces positioned among Iraqi Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard units, Renuart said. He recounted that Iraqi fighters resisted the advance of the U.S. column with rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns mounted on civilian trucks, called technical vehicles, and direct fire from 23mm and 57mm anti-aircraft artillery cannons.

"It was intense fighting in areas. On the other hand, in some areas people were standing on the sidewalks waving to us," Renuart said. "Clearly there is confusion in Baghdad. Clearly there is some chaos in terms of the command-and-control and the ability of the military to defend Baghdad."

U.S. military officials did not release any information about whether their troops suffered casualties during the incursion. The officials said that all the soldiers involved in the maneuver had left the city, reaching Baghdad airport, but added that other U.S. forces may still be active inside the capital.

Later, after dark fell, reporters said a loud explosion was heard near the central city, very close to the Palestine Hotel where Western journalists stay and near many government buildings.

Although U.S. officials would not say whether the incursion by the Army today had recorded any practical battlefield goals, they said these would in any case be secondary to the symbolism.

"The psychological impact of tanks rolling through the street is not lost on either the military or Baghdad," said a senior U.S. military official. He said Baghdad's citizens now know "they will be liberated and the regime will be taken out."

Renuart, however, cautioned that it is too early to declare victory.

"Victory will come. Of that there is no doubt," he said. "But this fight is far from over. As we have said, we've been about to move into the area of Baghdad city. As you look at the map of Iraq, you'll not that there are many other parts of the country where we have not yet taken control of enemy forces in that region. And so the fight will continue. The fight is far from finished in Baghdad."

The 3rd Infantry Division had set the stage for the foray into central Baghdad by defeating the Republican Guard's Medina Division late this week and advancing rapidly to the strategic junction of Highways 1 and 8 about seven miles south of the city's center. Part of the 3rd Infantry Division had split off from this force, heading west to capture the international airport on Friday.

Renuart said the airport has now been secured by U.S. troops from the Army's 101st Airborne and more forces are moving in to establish it as a main operating base. He said Iraqis continue to train artillery fire on U.S. positions at the airport but have done no damage. He added that very lightly armed Iraqi units have also attacked heavily armored U.S. forces without effect. U.S. soldiers continue to make sure the airport is safe, searching for possible booby traps.

Some of the forces at the airport are at the same time fanning out to the west, increasing the amount of territory under the control of U.S.-led forces, a senior military official said.

Other elements of the 101st were reported to be engaged in heavy fighting in Karbala, about 70 miles south of Baghdad, as they sought to ensure the security of U.S. supply lines. Helicopter-borne troops landed on the western edge of town and moved in beside a tank battalion with Apache attack helicopters overhead, the Reuters news agency reported. Iraqi paramilitary forces fired assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades from city rooftops. U.S. forces hit back using attack helicopters, artillery and heavy weapons.

"It's freaky in there. Lots of bullets flying around. It's pretty scary," said one U.S. soldier who was among half a dozen troops wounded in the fierce street fighting.

U.S. Marines from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, meantime, have been advancing on a second front to the southeast of the capital, where they have also set up their own operating base.

Since early Friday morning, Marines have been involved in "difficult engagements" with Iraqi fighters including advances on foot and some hand-to-hand combat, according to Renuart. He said he could not confirm reports from journalists near the front lines that the Marines have also faced Arab fighters from outside Iraq who have joined the city's defenses, a battle that one officer said involved bayonet fighting, according to the Associated Press.

The Marines had launched their attack from near Diwaniyah and south of Kut, destroying the Republican Guard's Baghdad Division, before heading northwest along Highway 6 toward the capital. Along the way, the Marines routed a Republican Guard infantry division and a regular Iraqi army division, he said.

The Marines are now poised just outside the city limits, U.S. military officials said.

"In a very short period of time, we have moved very rapidly into the vicinity of Baghdad, continue to move forces to a number of areas around the city, continue to engage Republican Guard units outside the city to prevent them from moving into the city," Renuart said.

As an example of the desperate condition of the Republican Guards, a senior military official said that the pounding of air strikes and artillery had reduced the Medina Division to less than 40 percent effectiveness even before the 3rd Infantry began its major push. In one area of the battlefield, U.S. aircraft dropped 80 100-pound bombs, he said.

"The integration of fires from both land and air was substantial," Renuart told reporters. And we were able to take advantage of superiority in the skies to prepare the battlefield. And as the forces moved through, they still found substantial Republican Guard capability, and in many cases those forces fought hard. But there were more isolated. They were not well organized."

U.S. officials announced today that a Cobra attack helicopter crashed in central Iraq and its two Marine pilots were killed.

In addition, the Pentagon announced this morning that eight bodies found during the rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch in the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah were those of American soldiers from the 507 Maintenance Company who had been with Lynch. They included the first woman soldier killed in combat in Iraq, Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, 23, of Tuba City, Ariz.

Renuart gave a few more details of Lynch's rescue today, saying that it involved a diversionary force to draw Iraqi fighters in the town away from the hospital. Once that decoy operation began, rescuers in helicopters came to the hospital and a local doctor helped them find Lynch's room. When the U.S. troops found her, she was in bed with a sheet pulled over her head. Renuart said a U.S. soldier called to her saying, "'Jessica Lynch, we're the United Sates soldiers and we're here to protect you and take you home. She seemed to understand that. And as he walked over and took his helmet off, she looked up to him and said, 'I'm an American soldier, too.'"

As they prepared to evacuate her, Renuart said, she grabbed the hand of the military physician who was with the search team, telling him, "Please don't let anybody leave me."

After Lynch was safely in the helicopter and on her way to a field hospital, the search team began looking for bodies of other Americans. "They in fact, did not have shovels in order to dig those graves up, so they dug them with their hands," Renuart recounted. "And they wanted to do that very rapidly so that they could race the sun and be off the site before the sun came up; a great testament to the will and desire of coalition forces to bring their own home."

In other matters, Renuart said that by this morning, U.S. forces had taken 6,500 Iraqi prisoners. He added that U.S. commanders have reports of other Iraqi fighters who have expressed an interest in surrendering but U.S. forces not reached these units yet.

As Baghdad's residents realize that U.S. troops are tightening their grip about the city, U.S. forces report they are seeing more people flee the capital.

"Many of the people in Baghdad are concerned, because they know there are coalition forces, and we see reflections of that in some intelligence, that people are saying, Hey, the Americans and the coalition are coming," Renuart said . "I think there is some concern that they will be caught in a cross-fire. So its understandable that people will try to leave to move out. We have not seen large numbers you know, hundreds of thousands of refugees moving. We have seen in some cases numbers of cars, trucks, et cetera, household goods."

Reporters in Baghdad said gunfire could be heard around the city, but it was unclear if that signaled fighting or just bravado from militias and soldiers there. Members of Saddam's Fedayeen, a militia fiercely loyal to the Iraqi leader, appeared downtown, the Associated Press reported. Few of the fighters had been seen around Baghdad since the war began and there had been many reports that they were in the southern part of the country trying to reinforce efforts by regular Army units fighting the allied advance.

The advance on Baghdad raises increasing concerns among U.S. military planners that Hussein's forces could use chemical and biological weapons to turn back the U.S.-led troops.

"Any person that feels threatened is likely to lash out in a way that might be unpredictable," Renuart said. "So we would not in any way expect that this regime might not take the opportunity to do something desperate and to use a weapon like that, even in the area of its own city where its own people were."

He said that U.S. troops have trained to press their offensive even under attack from chemical and biological weapons.

During the briefing, Renuart also said aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition have flown 1,500 missions over Iraq over the previous 24 hours, including less than 1,000 combat sorties. These aircraft flew another 1,500 missions elsewhere in the Gulf region as part of the war effort, he said.

In one of the combat sorties, two aircraft used laser-guided munitions Friday night to strike the Basra home of Gen. Ali Hassan Majeed, Hussein's cousin, according to U.S. military officials at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. Shortly before the outbreak of war, Majeed was named as the commander of Iraq's southern forces.