U.S. Army Black Hawk shot down
Fighter jet also down; search under way
(CNN) -- A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter was shot down by small arms fire Wednesday night in south-central Iraq, military officials said, but there were conflicting reports on casualties.
The Pentagon said seven soldiers were killed and four others wounded and rescued. But a statement from U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar said only six people were on the Black Hawk and that casualties could not be confirmed.
The Central Command statement said the chopper crashed around 7:30 p.m. (10:30 a.m. EST).
Col. Tom Bright, the Marine Corps chief at the U.S. Central Command's joint operations center in Qatar, said an investigation has been launched into what happened.
The crash happened near Karbala, about 50 miles from Baghdad. The city has seen heavy fighting in recent days between coalition forces and Iraqi Republican Guard units.
Meanwhile, a U.S. Navy F/A-18C Hornet went down over Iraq early Thursday. A search-and-rescue operation has been launched, U.S. officials said. The single-seat fighter jet from the USS Kitty Hawk went down around 12:45 a.m. Thursday (3:45 p.m. ET Wednesday). Further details were not immediately available.
Marine: Coalition will be in Baghdad 'before you know it'
Coalition forces have pummeled Iraq's Republican Guard, leaving two of six divisions ineffective, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.
Commanders with the Army's V Corps told CNN that American troops could be on Baghdad's southern outskirts by early Thursday.
But top officials downplayed expectations that a drive into the city was imminent and they warned that some of the fiercest fighting lies ahead.
Bright predicted coalition forces would be in Baghdad "before you know it" and that time is running out on Saddam Hussein.
"He's certainly feeling the noose being tightened around him," Bright said.
Bright would not specify when the troops would be there. But he said one of his colleagues gave a cigar to the commander of a tank battalion and told him to smoke it when he gets to Baghdad.
"My guess is he's probably gonna get that opportunity here pretty quick," Bright told CNN's "Larry King Live."
In the 13th day of the ground campaign, coalition forces were moving closer to Baghdad, said Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The Baghdad Division in Kut and the Medina Division of the were no longer "credible forces," he said.
At the same time, both McChrystal and Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke stressed the most difficult battles may yet unfold.
"As much as we are making good progress -- and we are -- the toughest fighting could lie ahead," Clarke said. "The likelihood that they might use chemical weapons is in front of us now. We are not underestimating how tough it could be going forward."
U.S. ground forces closed in on multiple fronts south of Baghdad Wednesday after battling Republican Guard troops protecting key routes to the Iraqi capital, military officials said. (Map of battle areas)
"The dagger is clearly pointed at the heart of the Baghdad regime," said U.S. Central Command briefing officer Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks in Doha, Qatar.
About 40 satellite-guided bombs late Wednesday pounded a "heavily secured" storage facility in Baghdad used by forces loyal to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, U.S. Central Command said.
The U.S. 3rd Infantry Division pushed north after seizing Karbala, while Marines moved up from Kut and coalition warplanes pounded Iraqi positions in northern Iraq, where Kurdish fighters reported gains. (Full story)
Elements of the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry -- lead unit of the 3rd Infantry -- had advanced to within 25 miles of Baghdad, reported CNN's Walter Rodgers, who is with the unit. That report was cleared by 7th Cavalry officials. (On the scene)
To the east, U.S. Marines faced little resistance as they moved northward in "bumper to bumper" traffic. Marines took a key bridge near Kut, about 100 miles east of Karbala, and crossed the Tigris River after a bloody battle with Republican Guard troops.
Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf denied reports that coalition forces had crossed the Tigris River and were approaching Baghdad, saying they have lost significant numbers of troops and equipment.
"They are lying every day, they are lying always and mainly they are lying to their public opinion," Sahaf said. "What they say about a breakthrough is completely an illusion."
In Najaf, south of Karbala, Army officers said Iraqi soldiers have taken over the gilded dome of the Tomb of Ali, a landmark venerated by Shia Muslims as the burial site of the prophet Muhammad's son-in-law. (Full story)
U.S. forces have avoided firing on the mosque, Brooks said. (Full story)
In northern Iraq, coalition airstrikes targeted Iraqi positions outside the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. CNN's Brent Sadler called it a "ferocious bombardment" with "heavy explosions."
Kurdish forces have taken over Iraqi troop positions and are within 15 miles of Kirkuk.
After heavy coalition bombing, Iraqi troops have disappeared from a ridgeline close to Kalak, about 27 miles to the east of Mosul and on the main road between that city and Erbil, residents said.
A statement attributed to Saddam was read on Iraqi television Wednesday, urging Iraqis to defend their towns. Saddam did not appear.
"Victory is at hand, God willing, although we have only utilized a third or less of our army while the criminals have used everything they brought in," the statement said.
POW rescued; bodies found
Rescued Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, 19, arrived in Germany late Wednesday for treatment of injuries at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
U.S. forces launched a pre-dawn raid Wednesday to rescue Lynch from a Nasiriya hospital used as an Iraqi military post. She had been listed as missing in action after intense fighting near Nasiriya on March 23. (Full story)
Lynch, a supply clerk with the 507th Maintenance Company from Fort Bliss, Texas, suffered multiple gunshot wounds in the ambush that led to her capture and had to be moved from the hospital with special care, Pentagon sources said. (What happened to the 507th?)
Central Command said 11 bodies also were discovered at the Nasiriya hospital. It was not clear if the bodies were those of U.S. soldiers. The military was trying to identify the bodies.
• The United States has used a highly classified version of the Tomahawk cruise missile in Iraq that spews carbon fibers onto a target to disable it rather than destroy it, according to two U.S. military officials. Fewer than four have been used in the war on Iraq and may have been used against targets such as electrical power grids or communications antennas. The weapon was also used in the war in Kosovo.
• The Arab-language news agency Al-Jazeera reported Wednesday it has suspended the work of all its correspondents in Iraq, after Iraqi officials banned at least one of its employees from reporting. (Full story)
• The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force found two Al-Samoud 2 missiles near Hillah in central Iraq Monday, the U.S. Central Command said Wednesday. Iraq was ordered to destroy those missiles in the weeks before the war because they exceeded the U.N. range limit of 93 miles (150 kilometers).
• Coalition bombing Wednesday damaged a maternity hospital and the offices of the Iraqi Red Crescent, but caused no casualties, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said. (Full story)
• After meeting with Iraq's U.N. Ambassador Mohammed Aldouri, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Wednesday said he is willing to go to Iraq to help secure the release of U.S. prisoners of war. Jackson has carried out similar missions in Syria, Yugoslavia and Cuba.
• The United Nations warned Wednesday that humanitarian food rations being handed out by coalition forces in Iraq have a wrapping that is the same color as unexploded bomblets dropped in the country, which could mean death for children who confuse the two.
• U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was in Turkey in a bid to mend strained relations between the two countries and to argue against Ankara sending a large force of troops into northern Iraq. (Full story)
• Multiple launch rocket systems fired from what appeared to be British positions rained down on this southern Iraqi city of Basra Wednesday. British commanders said they were confident they would overcome resistance fighters and take the city. (Full story)
• BBC cameraman Kaveh Golestan, 52, was accidentally killed in northern Iraq Thursday after standing on a land mine as he climbed out of his car, according to a statement put out by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Golestan was an Iranian freelance cameraman working as part of a four-man team filming at Kifri.
CNN correspondents Christiane Amanpour, Jane Arraf, Ryan Chilcote, Bob Franken, Art Harris, Tom Mintier, Karl Penhaul, Nic Robertson, Walter Rodgers, Brent Sadler and Ben Wedeman and producer Mike Mount contributed to this report.
EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN's policy is to not report information that puts operational security at risk.