WITH THE 101ST AIRBORNE DIVISION IN IRAQ (AP) _ U.S. Screaming Eagles infantrymen were less than 100 miles from Baghdad on Wednesday after a historic assault deep into Iraqi territory.

More than 8,000 infantrymen airlifted into Iraq during more than 72 hours of continuous operations. No American casualties were reported, and they encountered little resistance.

On Wednesday, the soldiers cut Highway 8, a major highway into Kuwait. They blew craters in the roadway, burned the surface off in places and destroyed at least 17 Iraqi trucks, leaving them blocking the road.

Since Tuesday, U.S. soldiers have been attacking fleeing enemy troops along the highway northwest of the provincial capital of Nasiriyah and just south of the Euphrates River. Late that day, U.S. soldiers hit a convoy of three trucks fleeing from the strategic city of Basra, wounding 14 soldiers and capturing an additional seven unscathed.

''We're the first guys who ask them to lay down their weapons, and they did,'' said Col. Robert Clark, commander of the 101st's 3rd Brigade. ''It just took a little convincing.''

The colonel was speaking from a command post near the river, more than 100 miles from Saudi Arabia and less than 100 miles from Baghdad.

The lighting strike began early Monday, when hundreds of helicopters moved thousands of troops in what the division said was the largest airborne assault in military history.

Within three hours, Blackhawk, Cobra, and Chinook helicopters led by Apache attack choppers, moved more than 3,000 soldiers into Iraqi.

The next day scores of helicopters launched what officers said was the longest air assault ever, dropping three battalions of infantrymen about 130 miles into Iraq. On Wednesday thousands more roared into Iraq on helicopters.

During the course of more than two days, only two Iraqi soldiers were killed and 22 others wounded. At least 40 Iraqi soldiers were captured.

Most of the fighting occurred on Highway 8, a two-lane paved road that parallels the river and splits Iraq in two.

Burned-out shells of civilian and military vehicles dotted the road. Bedouin tents filled the horizon, surrounded by herds of skittish sheep that sprinted in all directions as attack helicopters buzzed the fertile plain. Along the highway dozens of ragged-looking Iraqi civilians looted one burned- out truck that had been carting flour.

Women turned from the looting to expose a single breast to American soldiers and point to their mouths in a sign troops interpreted to mean they had babies to feed. Iraqi men also pointed to their mouths and cursed Saddam Hussein in broken English.

The success of the operation stunned the American troops.

''I still can't believe we got this far, this fast,'' said Lt. Col. Hank Kennison, a 42-year-old battalion commander from Lubbock, Texas. Kennison spoke as he leaned against a 10-foot-high portrait of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

''Nice ties,'' he said. The portrait showed the Iraqi leader in a pink necktie. ''I've always admired Saddam's ties,'' Kennison said.

Kennison's troops were the first to hit the ground Tuesday near the banks of the Euphrates in what the 101st division dubbed Operation Rakkasan. His battalion is called the Rakkasan, the closest Japanese equivalent to paratrooper, because it was trained in World War II to fight the Japanese.

Hundreds of his men sneaked up on several buildings and occupied them. The invaders apparently startled several employees of the facility. Beans, pita bread, onions and tomatoes were strewn around an industrial-sized kitchen. Glasses of tea, half empty, sat unattended.

Inside the building, posters of Saddam adorned the walls, much to the hilarity of occupying Americans.

''We're pulling old Saddam by the nose,'' said Pvt. Erik Shell, 26, of Frankton, Ind. The soldier had been digging foxholes for two days. ''Hoo-ah 3/8'' he yelled, repeating the signature call of the American forces.

The 101st established Forward Base Cobra, more than 50 miles inside Iraq, on Monday. Since then the base has served as a giant fuel and ammunition dump for the assault further north. In two days, more than 1 million gallons of fuel have been airlifted to the area.

Cobra is supporting Forward Base Eagle along the Euphrates River.

Chester said U.S. forces had expected large numbers of refugees in the area, but so far few had surfaced. He attributed the success to Army Psychological Operations Teams, which went to villages with loudspeakers telling villages not to be afraid.

Capt. Paul Floyd, 31, of Knoxville, Tenn., said American troops had given water to some Iraqi civilians. Food and medical assistance, although offered, were not accepted, he said.

Floyd said that on several occasions, when American soldiers ran into Iraqi civilians, they screamed, ''Don't eat us, please 3/8'' apparently referring to Iraqi propaganda about the intentions of the allied forces.

''Once they realized that we weren't planning to eat them, things settled down,'' Floyd said.

After one day, relations betweeen the American soldiers and local populace appear relatively relaxed. Clark's command post, for example, was located no more than 150 feet from a small village of about 75 people

Intelligence officers said the Iraqi POWs and their weapons provided solid information. In one bunker U.S. forces found rocket-propelled grenade launchers, grenades and 120mm mortars along with ammunition in boxes marked from General Military Command, Amman, Jordan.

The delivery date for some of the items was January 1991, long after the United Nations ordered an arms embargo on Iraq.

''That stuff's awfully fresh,'' one officer said.

Weather delayed the operation. Once troops landed along the Euphrates, a fierce wind, blowing more than 50 miles an hour, tossed up a wall of sand, cutting the battalions off from Forward Base Cobra for more than 10 hours. By Wednesday, however, the weather improved.

In some places soldiers landed in mud flats and immediatly sank knee deep.

At one location troops flew into rice paddies, scaring away an Iraqi civilian driving along a dirt road in a small sedan.

''I don't believe he'll ever stop running,'' Chester said. ''He left his car going and lights on and just took off.''