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Walter Rodgers: Iraqi officials fleeing Baghdad

CNN's Walter Rodgers
CNN's Walter Rodgers

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As U.S. forces push into Baghdad, the 3-7th Cavalry engaged Iraqi tanks that tried to retake positions near the Iraqi capital. CNN's Walter Rodgers reports. (April 5)
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(CNN) U.S. forces began the difficult move into Baghdad on Saturday, pressing from the surrounding areas into the heart of the Iraqi capital.

Traveling with the Army's 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry, CNN correspondent Walter Rodgers told anchor Bill Hemmer about the day's fleeing and fighting in the Baghdad streets.

RODGERS: The officers with whom we are traveling say their airplanes and sightings are telling them that Iraqi officials are fleeing Baghdad in droves.

What they're doing, then according to the Army, is insinuating their army trucks in between civilian convoys and fleeing Baghdad. It is assumed these are Baath Party officials, officials of Saddam Hussein's regime and these same officials are also perhaps mid-level Republican Guard army officers.

Yesterday we reported more Iraqi officials fleeing, some of them with suitcases full of money. What is new today is that they are fleeing in the civilian convoys, and of course coalition airstrikes can't hit a civilian convoy. The direction of their exodus tends to be a northwesterly direction. The assumption is they're trying to seek sanctuary in Syria, the most likely place they could find some sort of refuge.

Despite the fact that U.S. forces entered the city hours ago, the area around Baghdad remains hostile. The 7th Cavalry went out with its tanks this morning on a reconnaissance mission. It went back to see if Iraqi units had re-infiltrated into a battlefield area where yesterday there was a force-on-force battle, Republican Guard against 7th Cavalry. The 7th Cavalry knocked out more than 20 Iraqi tanks and other armored vehicles.

Indeed the Iraqis did filter back in overnight; and as the 7th Cavalry was rolling up the road, there was a surprise ahead of it. To the right side, there were three new T-72 tanks, and to the left side two more tanks and another armored vehicle.

But the U.S. Army tanks opened up very quickly and perhaps surprised the Iraqis. Whatever happened, the Iraqi tanks went up in flames, billowing smoke. They burned for hours and hours, and there were secondary explosions from the ammunition on board -- from the machine guns and very large balls of flame exploding periodically. For a number of hours, the 120 mm shells inside those tanks were burning themselves out.

Perhaps we can add a little more information [about] the U.S. forces who punched into southern Baghdad in the early hours of the morning, Baghdad time. That was the 2nd Brigade of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division. It had a clear motive for moving into the city. This was not just psychological warfare, nor was it just muscle flexing.

The U.S. Army generals were moving their troops around, and they wanted to relocate the 2nd Division at another position in the Baghdad area. So what they did was they first rammed a reconnaissance unit up through the city and followed through with replacements. And now the 2nd Brigade is going to replace the 3rd Brigade.

The generals are moving around their soldiers through Baghdad. They say they can now move their soldiers with will. That seems pretty much the case, although there is still hostile area in and around the city of Baghdad.

HEMMER: Did any of the soldiers tell you about the reception they did or did not receive from the citizens of Baghdad earlier today?

RODGERS: I've been listening to the Army radio, and it was a hostile reception from at least some Iraqi irregular units inside the city. What the Iraqis did was to fire at the advancing 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry, columns moving into the city. And that was not a pleasant reception.

For many of those soldiers, this was their baptism under fire ... when you have 20 mm anti-aircraft guns shooting straight down the street at your face, shrapnel exploding everywhere, not to mention RPGs, rocket-propelled grenades.

The reception they got, at least from those who decided to put up some resistance, was singularly unpleasant. Some of the soldiers, I'm told, were more than a little shaken to see such up-close city fighting and to have guns going off in their faces.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This report was written in accordance with Pentagon ground rules allowing so-called embedded reporting, in which journalists join deployed troops. Among the rules accepted by all participating news organizations is an agreement not to disclose sensitive operational details.

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