Capture of Baghdad airport has far-reaching impact

Victory shakes Iraqis, provides U.S. forces with forward base for attacks

War In Iraq

April 08, 2003|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When troops from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division rolled into Saddam Hussein International Airport over the weekend, they captured more than a few runways and buildings.

In the short term, it was a key psychological victory over Hussein's regime, showing that U.S. troops could march to its front door and kick it in.

In the longer term, the airport stands to play an important strategic role for U.S.-led forces - allowing fresh troops to be ferried in and serving as a base for warplanes and attack helicopters - as well as enabling humanitarian aid and relief workers to be brought in, Pentagon officials and defense analysts said.

The first American C-130 cargo plane was able to land at the airport - renamed Baghdad International Airport by U.S. officials - late Sunday, even though there were continued skirmishes between U.S. and Iraqi troops.

"A lot of it is psychological, as far as tightening the noose," said Michael Vickers, a former CIA analyst and Special Forces officer. "It has symbolic value as well as practical value."

Retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters said the psychological effects of the airport seizure extended to a dumbfounded colonel from Hussein's elite Republican Guard who was captured by U.S. troops at the airport, still believing the official Iraqi line that the invaders were more than 60 miles away.

One Pentagon planner said that Sunday's C-130 landing was a demonstration of U.S. military clout and that he doubts that any other cargo aircraft will land at the airport until resistance can be eliminated.

"Until the area's clear, it's too much of a chance," said the planner, who requested anonymity. "We don't need it for a logistics base," he added, noting that C-130 aircraft are landing at airfields not far from the city.

The planner said the airport's facilities, particularly its fuel storage and hangars, will be important for ongoing operations and repairs.

"I think we'd use the facilities as much as the runways," he said.

Maj. Gen. John Brown, the Army's chief of military history, said taking the sprawling airport next to the unpacified city enables attack helicopters and other aircraft to spend "much greater time over the target." They do not have to use precious fuel or time coming from a more-distant airfield, he said.

With Iraqi mortar and missile attacks still a problem around Baghdad, said Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, it's important to have a nearby airport that allows a quick response with aircraft.

At the same time, the occupation of the Baghdad airport "radically enhances" the ability to resupply troops and bring in humanitarian supplies, added Brown.

"As you transition to post-conflict, it takes on a larger value," Vickers said. The airport can handle all sizes of aircraft, bringing in everything from humanitarian aid to relief workers from the United Nations and other organizations.

The airport, located about 12 miles from downtown, is in an open area and can be easily defended against attacking ground forces, though it is a large and inviting target for Iraqi missile attacks, Peters said.

Meanwhile, Army engineers at the airport were able get the power up and running by fixing a generator in a novel way, said Brown. They completed the work with the help of a video conference with military engineers in the United States, who were able to walk them through the procedures.

"Tele-engineering. It's a little bit like telemedicine," said Brown. "They tinkered with it and it worked."

Baghdad airport is only the latest in a string of airfields captured in Iraq. Early in the war, Special Operations forces grabbed two in the western desert, H2 and H3, using them as bases of operations for raids on Hussein's troops, as well as searches for Scud missiles and chemical and biological weapons.

Airfields also were occupied in the southern part of the country, such as the one at Tillel. And in the Kurdish north, paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade took at least one airport that could be used in the coming days for airlifting Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, officials said.

Since World War II, American forces have seen the strategic value of quickly seizing airfields - a lesson taught by the Japanese.

By quickly capturing U.S. airfields in the Philippines, soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese were able to control the skies, vastly extending their combat reach, said Brown, the Army's historian.

"They were the first ones that were in our face with it," he said. "We never forgot it."

In the months after their assault on the Philippines, Japanese forces continued efforts to seize or build airfields.

U.S. Marines battled the Japanese on Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. The Japanese "fought ferociously" to keep the island, particularly its airfield, which it was using as a base for warplanes attacking allied supply convoys heading toward Australia.

But the Americans were victorious, seizing a patch of key turf they renamed Henderson Field. U.S. forces then began the island-hopping campaign that took them north toward Japan, always mindful of the islands that had airstrips.

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