NEAR BAGHDAD (Reuters)
U.S. forces seized control of Baghdad’s international airport on Friday in the first ground attack on Iraq’s capital in a 16-day-old war to overthrow President Saddam Hussein.
“We control the airport. It’s a big area with a lot of buildings that need to be cleared, but it’s ours,” Colonel John Peabody, commander of the Engineer Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, told Reuters.
Military analysts say Saddam International Airport is a key objective for U.S. forces, who can use it as a forward operating base in any battle for the ancient, sprawling city of five million people.
The advance puts the capital within range of ground-based rockets and guns brought by U.S. troops from Kuwait.
The U.S. military said 320 Iraqi foot soldiers had been killed in fighting for control of the airport, just 12 miles southwest of the center of Baghdad.
They said dozens of Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery, troop carriers and trucks had been captured or destroyed.
U.S. troops then fought off an Iraqi counterattack, destroying five tanks and several armed pickup trucks in a fierce firefight, Reuters correspondent Luke Baker said.
“The Bradley fighting vehicles opened up with heavy machineguns and TOW missiles and knocked out four T-72 tanks, a T-62 and a number of other vehicles,” he said. “The tanks are smoldering and I can see several bodies lying around.”
In Baghdad, Reuters reporter Nadim Ladki heard up to 100 explosions through the night from the direction of the airport which, since the 1991 Gulf war and international sanctions, has seen little commercial use.
More loud blasts rocked the city center early on Friday, the Muslim holy day.
U.S. Central Command in Qatar said on Friday that U.S. and British planes also hit Iraq’s Air Force headquarters in central Baghdad with satellite-guided “smart bombs.”
“The strike degraded Iraqi Air Force capabilities to command and control Iraqi air assets,” the U.S. statement said.
For the first time since the conflict began on March 20, the power went off late on Thursday, plunging Baghdad into darkness and silencing the loudspeakers that call Muslims to prayers.
U.S. officials said they had not targeted the electricity grid.
Dozens of Iraqis, mostly soldiers, were killed in the village of Furat near the airport in what residents said was a barrage of U.S. artillery and rocket fire attacks.
Iraq said it captured five U.S. tanks and one helicopter in that battle. The United States issued no casualty report.