Battle for Baghdad airport

3rd Infantry fights way into sprawling facility 10 miles from city center

Capital dark as power is cut off

American commanders in no rush to enter city, engage in street warfare

War In Iraq

April 04, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The battle for Baghdad began in earnest last night as U.S. forces attacked Iraqi troops defending the sprawling international airport just outside the Iraqi capital.

Elements of the 3rd Infantry Division seized portions of Saddam International Airport, about 10 miles from the city center.

By 8 a.m. today, Baghdad time, Col. William F. Grimsley said, 75 percent of the airport was in American hands. He said his men had seized the airport's VIP terminal. The troops attacked the western, military part of the airport complex first, then moved on the eastern, civilian side that is closer to Baghdad. Fighting could be heard from the control tower.

Most of the Iraqi forces were dispersed by morning and were fighting in small groups. Grimsley said 40 Republican Guards were taken prisoner.

As the attack on the airport began, much of Baghdad was plunged into darkness by the first power failure of the war. There were conflicting reports about who had cut the electricity - the Americans or the Iraqis.

Seizing the modern airport would be a major psychological victory, as well as a military gain. Named for Saddam Hussein, it is a showpiece of the Iraqi regime, though it has seen little commercial traffic over the past 12 years.

Its runways had been spared in the air campaign of the past 16 days and might be used soon as a convenient base to fly in additional soldiers, equipment and supplies. It could also become a temporary headquarters for the military occupation authority that could soon try to start governing the country.

U.S. troops could also use the airport grounds to launch attacks on nearby Iraqi installations, including a pair of Hussein's presidential palace complexes. In recent days, precision-guided U.S. bombs destroyed military barracks for the Special Republican Guard, Hussein's most elite soldiers, on the edge of the airport.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that Hussein's regime might soon be "irrelevant because at this point they're not going to be able to communicate with the people of Iraq. That will all be shut down."

The Iraqi government "won't be able to communicate within certain parts of Baghdad," he said, adding that U.S. forces would control "the water, the electricity, things like that." Recent U.S. airstrikes have destroyed local telephone exchanges in Baghdad and hit transmitters for state television.

As the American-led invasion entered its 16th day, U.S. soldiers were digging in not far from the heart of Baghdad. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld proclaimed that U.S.-led forces had "now arrived near the regime's doorstep."

Besides the Army units that reached the southwestern edge of the capital, elements of the 1st Marine Division closed in on Baghdad from the southeast, after facing intense Iraqi fire near the Tigris River town of Kut.

It was by no means clear, however, that American commanders were eager to rush into the densely populated neighborhoods where Iraq's military leaders say they would wage bloody street combat against U.S. soldiers.

"Having traveled hundreds of miles, we will now go the last 200 yards," President Bush told thousands of cheering Marines and their families at Camp Lejeune, N.C. "We're on the advance. Our destination is Baghdad, and we will accept nothing less than complete and final victory."

Bush also said, "A vise is closing, and the days of a brutal regime are coming to an end."

But U.S. military officials scaled back sharply on their upbeat comments of a day earlier, when ground forces pierced the outer defenses of Baghdad with mainly light opposition.

At U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said American commanders "would not want to be overconfident," one day after appearing supremely so.

Their public comments indicated that the war had reached a turning point, but there was still confusion about the intentions and fighting strength of Iraq's military. In particular, U.S. officials could not say for certain whether well-trained Republican Guard soldiers had withdrawn into the Baghdad area to help defend the capital, as some suspected, or gone elsewhere, or simply given up.

At the Pentagon, there were numerous warnings about the threat facing American forces. Myers spoke of "very, very difficult" work ahead, and Rumsfeld cautioned that Iraq's government "may prove to be more lethal in the final moments before it ends."

And even as U.S. forces were nearing their goal of entering Baghdad, the level of confusion about the situation there seemed to be growing.

American officials tried to sow doubts about whether Hussein was still calling the shots.

"We can't tell who's in charge," said Brooks. "We have indications that the Iraqi forces don't know who's in charge."

U.S. officials said the Iraqi government had lost control of nearly half the country. Most of the population, though, still lives in towns and cities controlled by the government, including the two largest, Baghdad and Basra.

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