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U.S. Forces Capture Baghdad's Airport

U.S. forces have completed the large task of seizing Baghdad's airport, but they still have a lot of dangerous detail work ahead of them.


Saddam appears on TV in Iraq.

After U.S. troops seized the airport near Baghdad, the name of Saddam International ceased to exist, the U.S. Central Command said Friday. The airport is now called Baghdad International. "And it is a gateway to the future of Iraq," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks told reporters at Central Command's forward base in Qatar.

The capture of the airport was one of many developments that happened on the 16th day of the war. Here is a summary:

Capture provides strategic advantage

U.S. Army Col. John Peabody expressed satisfaction about the capture of the airport.

"Taking the airport makes a dramatic political statement, but it's also strategic," said Peabody, commander of the Engineer Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division.

As a result, U.S. forces can use the facility to supply their troops and reduce the risk of using a vulnerable road link that stretches all the way back to Kuwait.

But before they can start to fully use the facility, located about 12 miles (20 kilometers) southwest of downtown Baghdad, U.S. forces still have some dangerous work to do. The airport will not be considered secure "until you've gone to every room of every building," said Major John Altman, an intelligence officer with the division. "There's a lot of buildings."

U.S. forces began their attack on the airport on Thursday evening by raining heavy artillery fire and bombs on the facility -- attacks that left buildings in flames. Witnesses said dozens of people were killed or wounded. The fighting started on Friday about 7:30 a.m. (5:30 a.m. Central European Time), shortly after U.S. forces said they had seized about 80 percent of the sprawling complex.

U.S. commanders have cautioned that they may wait before storming toward the city center, area even if they secure positions around the outskirts. It is unclear what defenses President Saddam Hussein may have positioned inside Baghdad, and fighting there, which would limit the U.S. technological advantage, could be bloody.

Saddam Hussein appears on Iraqi TV

On Friday, Saddam Hussein gave an address on Iraqi television urging the Iraqi people to "strike the enemy with force." His mention of the downing of a U.S. Apache helicopter on March 24 suggested that the Iraqi leader had survived previous U.S. bombing raids on Baghdad.

Later in the day Saddam was shown on television visiting a residential area in what was said to be Baghdad. The TV footage was unable to quell suspicions that Saddam Hussein is dead, since it could not be verified that it was filmed on the same day or whether it was Saddam himself.

Iraq plans "non-conventional act"

As U.S. forces prepared for the battle of Baghdad, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf said on Friday that Iraq had no plans to use chemical or biological weapons against invading U.S. and British forces. "But we will conduct a kind of martyrdom operations," al-Sahaf said at a news conference.

Earlier in the day, al-Sahaf said at the same news conference that Iraq would "commit a non-conventional act," possibly on Friday night, against U.S. forces who have seized the airport.

"Unless they surrender quickly, I don't think there's any chance that they will survive," he said, referring to the U.S. forces outside Baghdad. "We consider it an isolated island. ... They are completely surrounded."

American soldiers find suspicious vials

U.S. troops have found thousands of boxes containing vials of unidentified liquid and powder as well as manuals on chemical warfare at two sites near Baghdad, a U.S. officer said on Friday. "It's unclear at this point what the vials contain, and we're sending a team of experts to examine them," Capt. Kevin Jackson told Reuters.

The United States and Britain invaded Iraq on March 20, accusing Saddam of hiding chemical and other weapons of mass destruction. They have so far found no firm evidence to back their accusations.

The vials were about four and a half inches long. Some contained liquid, some powder. The books and manuals were in a safe, Jackson said.

US-Brigadegeneral Vincent Brooks

Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks

Separately, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks (photo) told reporters at a news briefing at Central Command in Qatar that special forces in Iraq's western desert had found what they believed was a training school for handling chemical warfare.

Marines pound Republican Guard division

U.S. Marines said on Friday that the Nida division of the Iraqi Republican Guard had been defeated by U.S.-led forces pushing toward Baghdad from the southeast. The division "has ceased to exist as an effective fighting force," a U.S. military officer told Reuters correspondent Sean Maguire, who is traveling with the Marines.

The officers said two of three brigades in the division had been destroyed and one was still unaccounted for. The Republican Guard, said to be fiercely nationalistic and loyal to Saddam, comprises about 70,000 soldiers in six divisions. The United States says that some other divisions have also been beaten.

As Marines pushed forward from the town of Kut, they also captured 2,500 prisoners in a clash with the Republican Guards.

Residents of Baghdad bewildered

The people of Baghdad realize now that the final battle has reached their doorstep, and they do not know what to do about it.

"This is it. This is the final battle. We have no way out. We are facing a reality now. We're confronting the mightiest army in the world. What can we do? Where can we go? We're at a loss," said Nour Khaled, 48, a mother of two.

"We will definitely die," Khaled said. "Who can escape such a war? My husband and I pray to God that if we're to die we wish to die together. Our main fear is that our children will die, and we will stay alive."

Wave after wave of U.S. planes pounded positions of the elite Republican Guard and key defense.

"I cannot talk," said one woman, trembling after her drive from the airport district. "I cannot even begin to describe to you what happened. It was a night of hell. There was relentless bombardment all night. We thought that they have entered all of Baghdad and occupied the whole city."

Overnight and into Friday, the city was blacked out. In parts of Baghdad, including the downtown area, there was still no power by early afternoon. But water, cut off when the power went down, is running again.

Humanitarian aid flows

United Nations expatriate personnel traveled to Iraq for the first time since being withdrawn by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan shortly before the war began. The team from the World Food Program, UNICEF, the U.N. Office for the Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq and U.N. security experts crossed from Kuwait to the port city Umm Qasr to assess the conditions of food, water, sanitation, electricity and health in the area.

"Significant progress" was made to get potable water to the residents of Umm Qasr and water was being transported north toward Basra in trucks, the U.S. military said. Foodstuffs and medicines were also being moved into southern Iraq from international ships, U.S. Col. David Blackledge confirmed.

The sounds of heavy artillery fire were heard coming from southwestern edge Baghdad on Friday night. "We can't tell whether it is Iraqi or American fire," a Reuters correspondent reported. U.S. military officials said it could take some time to capture Baghdad, since Iraqi forces seemed prepared to defend the capital. There were also reports that central Baghdad had again been hit by U.S. bombs.

Blair denies coalition missile hit market

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Friday that coalition troops were not responsible for a March 26 attack on a market in Baghdad in which 14 civilians were killed. Blair said in an interview with Abu Dhabi television that "the Baghdad street market bombings, for example, we are sure that the first one is not coalition forces. We are still trying to check out the second one."

Around 30 people were wounded on March 26 when two missiles fell on a market. Baghdad has said allied fire was responsible, while British officials have previously suggested Iraqi missiles might have malfunctioned and fallen back on the city.

A total of 30 civilians were killed and 47 wounded in a second Baghdad market bombing on March 28.

Other developments

-- The sounds of heavy artillery fire were heard coming from southwestern edge Baghdad on Friday night. "We can't tell whether it is Iraqi or American fire," a Reuters correspondent reported. U.S. military officials said it could take some time to capture Baghdad, since Iraqi forces seemed prepared to defend the capital. There were also reports that central Baghdad had again been hit by U.S. bombs.

-- U.S. reporter Michael Kelly was killed along with an American soldier as a result of an accident involving the Jeep they were travelling in on Thursday night. Kelly was embedded with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division and worked for the American magazine The Atlantic Monthly. He was the fourth journalist to be killed in action since the war began two weeks ago.

-- Three U.S. soldiers, a pregnant woman and her driver were killed on Thursday night in a car explosion at a U.S. checkpoint in central Iraq, the military announced on Friday. "These are not military actions, these are terrorist actions," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said in Qatar. The circumstances were similar to those of a car bomb blast last Saturday. Iraq has said this tactic would be followed by others against U.S. and British troops.

-- U.S.-led forces have secured 80-90 percent of Iraq's southern oil production capacity and aim to get Iraqi oil workers back on the job soon, a senior U.S. Army officer said on Friday. But Col. Michael Morrow declined to say when output from southern fields, capable of pumping 1.6 million barrels per day, would restart from Iraq's Gulf oil terminal.

-- A U.S. commander who was leading a push by Marines through southern Iraq was relieved of his post Friday for an undisclosed reason, a U.S. military spokesman said. The commander, Col. Joe Dowdy, had been leading the Marines First Regimental Combat Team.

-- Hundreds of Turks burned U.S., British and Israeli flags in anti-war demonstrations across the country following Friday prayers in mosques, the Anatolia news agency reported.

Compiled by DW-WORLD staff with information from wire services.

Note: Information on troop movements, victims and damage estimates are based on information from parties involved in the war and cannot be independently verified.

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