The Iraqi soldiers lying in ambush three miles outside ancient Babylon this afternoon were more courageous than competent, more patient than wise. At the end of the day they were dead, and the battle for the last contested city south of Baghdad had begun.

The 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division today squeezed Hilla with three infantry battalions from the west and another from the south, supported by tanks, jet fighters, helicopters and nearly 50 howitzers. As in Najaf to the south and Karbala to the west last week, the U.S. attack began with a sprinkling of satellite-guided bombs on barracks, military compounds and the Baath Party headquarters downtown.

Then the infantry advanced. Behind a screen of M1-A1 Abrams tanks, scouts in Humvees rolled eastward down a four-lane highway the Army had code-named Route Aspen. Just over the horizon lay a city of a half-million people and several of antiquity's most evocative archaeological sites: the temple of Nebuchadnezzar; biblical Babel; the ruins of the temple of Marduk, chief deity of Babylon; and traces of Hammurabi, the law-giver.

Just before noon, one Humvee abruptly came scorching back, its whip antennas sheared away by a rocket-propelled grenade. The scout offered a firsthand report: An unknown number of Iraqi defenders had blocked the road 500 yards ahead.

The Army high command huddled over the hood of a Humvee: Col. Michael S. Linnington, the tall, dark-eyed veteran of Afghanistan and commander of the 3rd Brigade; Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the 101st; and Brig. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, the assistant division commander for operations.

Linnington ordered an artillery barrage. To the rear, 105mm howitzers barked; from the front came smoke plumes and the kettle-drum roll of detonating shells. "You see the infantry commanders getting comfortable using artillery," Freakley observed. "They're getting hardened."

"This is real walk-and-shoot," Petraeus agreed. "It's not as easy as it looks."

The guns roared again. "Saddam Hussein has claimed that he's the new Nebuchadnezzar and is establishing a new Babylon," Freakley continued. "We're going to secure old Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar's tomb and return them to the Iraqi people. That's my story and I'm sticking to it."

OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopters darted ahead, then banked north over a field of sunflowers. The radios crackled with reports of Iraqi defenses ahead, and in the south. "Everything you expect," Linnington said. "Obstacles, berms, mines, RPGs, Syrians. The locals told our guys, 'You're not fighting locals, you're fighting Syrians.' "

Freakley studied the map. "It looks like he's trying to block all key road intersections. Analysis would be that he's trying to restrict avenues from the west and south."

At 1:07 p.m., Linnington called across the Humvee to his air liaison officer, Maj. Greg Gavin, a B-52 electronic warfare officer from Kansas City. "Hey, Greg, do you have any CAS [close air support] available to go into this intersection?"

"I can ask, sir."

"We're taking RPG fire down there, so anything around that intersection would be good."

Gavin pulled out a green pencil and a paper form, "Joint Tactical Air Strike Request." After entering an eight-digit grid location, he put a tick mark next to "immediate." Under "desired results," he checked "neutralize."

"Double-check it before you call it in," Gavin told an Air Force sergeant, who then radioed the V Corps air support operations center.

"I've got my watch on you Air Force guys," Freakley said, pointing to his wrist.

"Roger, sir," Gavin answered. "I've got two F/A-18s with laser-guided Mavericks."

Freakley spooned cold beans from an MRE pouch into his mouth. "I'm not sure that's the best munition for troops in the open," he mused.

"Still good to go?" Gavin asked. Linnington nodded.

The roar of jets overhead mingled with another artillery salvo.

"He's getting spooked by the artillery," Gavin said, referring to the pilot above. "Can we check fire?"

Linnington nodded, and ordered the artillery to cease.

"Artillery's cut off," Gavin told his radio operator, who relayed the message to the pilot. A pair of twin-tailed silver glints could be seen through the haze at 10,000 feet.

At 1:43 p.m., Linnington made a slashing motion across his throat. The ground commander ahead was tired of waiting for air support. "He wants to press the attack," Linnington said.

"Abort it," Gavin told the radio operator to instruct the pilots.

Linnington radioed ahead. "You have permission to press the attack."

Ten 10 M1-A1 Abrams tanks clanked down Route Aspen, followed by a convoy of open trucks packed with infantrymen. "I could use a beer so bad right now. Wouldn't that go down easy?" one officer said as the trucks passed.

Abruptly, the command group decided to move forward behind the last truck. Barely a quarter-mile down the highway, two Iraqi soldiers -- one wearing the dark green of the Republican Guard and the other the camouflage fatigues of the regular army -- waited in a mulberry thicket as the tanks passed.

When the lead truck rolled up, one Iraqi tossed a grenade, ventilating the radiator and wounding a soldier, while the other aimed an RPG. The brigade sergeant major was quicker, tossing a grenade of his own that ripped the faces from both Iraqi soldiers.

Linnington and the generals climbed from their Humvees. Rifle fire crackled, tentative at first and then quickly hysterical. Other Iraqis had sheltered in an enormous grain elevator south of the highway and were firing with AK-47s and a machine gun. U.S. infantrymen scrambled along a canal, flopping behind any illusion of cover. Bullets sang overhead and chewed the ground, pinging in ricochet. One burst stitched the ground next to Petraeus's Humvee.

"Little too close for CAS," Linnington observed. He stood in the open, scanning the silos with field glasses, then dashed forward. Infantrymen raked the elevator with fire from .50-caliber machine guns, MK-19 40mm grenade launchers and assault rifles. The distinctive three-round bursts of their M-4s echoed off the silos.

"I think the Kiowas will take care of it, Mike," Petraeus said. "You have them on your net?"

"Yes, sir."

Three Kiowas swooped in and circled the elevator. "We'll get it sorted out," Linnington said. "I'm bringing armor back to clear out this complex. We'll spend a couple hours clearing it out."

"Yes," Petraeus agreed. "Yes. That's exactly right." More Iraqi rounds pinged overhead. "Reminds me of the former honorary colonel of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment," Petraeus said. "When he would sign his name he would write under it, 'Shoot low.' "

Rocket fire from the Kiowas now ripped into the complex, punching black holes in the elevator. Acrid smoke drifted west and ashes sifted over the Americans like charred snow.

At 2:45 p.m., two tanks returned. Coaxial machine guns raked the building, followed by the roar of the 120mm main guns, again and again.

A psychological operations truck with huge loudspeakers mounted on the roof began broadcasting surrender appeals. "Tell these guys they have to get closer," Petraeus said. "He's talking into the wind."

On the south edge of the road, the dead Iraqi soldiers who attempted the ambush were scrutinized. One was bootless, apparently caught by surprise when the American tanks rolled past. Across the highway a small encampment indicated that a half-dozen men had been posted here. Bedrolls had been laid out next to a cold campfire, a kettle, an egg carton, a plastic bag with cucumbers and tomatoes. Flies coated a tray of hummus, the lunch disrupted by the U.S. attack.

The shooting ebbed, then surged again. "The enemy is holed up on the second floor of the complex," Linnington said. "Direct fire from that tank is a great way to clear that building."

More reports were sifted and assessed. The tanks two miles ahead, on the edge of the city, had killed at least a dozen Iraqis and many others were believed dead from artillery and airstrikes. The battalion pushing up from the south had discovered large weapons caches. American casualties were inconsequential: two lightly wounded.

As daylight began to fade, the Americans positioned for the night, ready to launch a full-scale assault on Hilla at first light.

"If the center of Baghdad is to be a violent fight," Freakley told Petraeus, "our 1st Brigade now has battle experience at An Najaf, the 2nd Brigade at Karbala and now the 3rd Brigade at Al Hilla. These boys have the confidence to go into that fight and to fight successfully."

The dead Iraqi soldiers were wrapped in striped blankets. For reasons uncertain, an infantryman logged items found on their bodies in green ink on the thigh of his uniform pants, including "wedding ring" and "prayer beads."

At 4:30 p.m., soldiers heaved the blanketed lumps into a hole 15 feet from where they died and shoveled dirt over them. Dust to dust.