RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is embedded with the tactical-operations center of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team in the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division. His unit is on the outskirts of Baghdad today, near the international airport. RFE/RL spoke with him this afternoon about the latest developments.
Question: Can you describe what's been happening on the ground where you are?
Synovitz: It's been a tense day, especially earlier in the day. At dawn, there was a lot of gunfire. We heard small-arms fire coming from a lot of different locations. And there have been a lot of explosions as U.S. engineers have been carrying out missions to destroy stockpiles of ammunition that are lying around in this area. There's a lot of that. At the moment, the small-arms fire seems to have died down in this area, and it's been cleared out by the U.S. troops. They've widened their security perimeters. So that's the situation here at the moment.
In the airport itself, there's been a battle going on all day. Units from the 3rd Infantry Division reached the airport during the night and were pushing their way in there and fighting. You have to understand that the airport is a very large compound -- [many] square [kilometers]. There are a lot of different buildings in there. It is the major international airport in Iraq, on the southwest of the city. The battle there has been going on throughout the day. The U.S. forces had moved into the perimeter of the airport, but with all the buildings, there were a lot of operations to clear out resistance of elements of Iraqi troops there, mostly firing with small arms during the day.
In the last hour, we've been receiving reports that there has been an Iraqi counterattack, and it's clear that there are some Iraqi Republican Guard units on the road outside the airport closer to the city of Baghdad. Saddam Hussein's forces appear to be making a very strong stand at the airport, as they consider that to be not only an important strategic position but also symbolically [important], because Saddam Hussein has invested an awful lot of his reputation and [because of] the pride that his regime has among the Sunnis here in Baghdad in this airport.
Question: Capturing the airport has been described as a psychological blow to the Iraqis.
Synovitz: The U.S. military and the British Defense Ministry are keen to describe it as a psychological target, downplaying the strategic significance. Clearly, if there are plans to use the airport as a forward staging area, that's something they wouldn't want to be announcing to the regime in Baghdad. One of the big fears is that the airport is close to the range of the artillery shells that are capable of carrying chemical warheads or biological agents. So there would be concern about that.
Question: What about the airport's strategic importance?
Synovitz: At the moment, the closest airfield that is being used by [forward] U.S. troops is the Talil airfield further south, near Nasiriyah. That is a strip that since it was taken, C-17 and C-30 cargo plans have been flying in a lot, bringing in supplies and troop reinforcements, and that has helped the effort. But now with the front lines so close to Baghdad, Nasiriyah becomes rather a rear airfield. So yes, the international airport so close to Baghdad would be of strategic significance. When they speak of an option, they mean the option of having flights directly to the front lines with supplies and additional troops and reinforcements.
Question: What is your impression of the next move for U.S. troops?
Synovitz: It's clear from the statement of the Iraqi officials, as well as statements that have been made by U.S. military planners publicly, that the next move would be to surround Baghdad. That is something that is under way at the moment, and it could be very soon that the U.S. military is announcing that they have surrounded Baghdad. Whether the U.S. troops try to move into the city of Baghdad for house-to-house fighting is something that remains to be seen.
What's important to remember is that Major General Buford Blount clearly indicated at the outset of this war that the military's goals are to, in his words, create conditions for regime change, not saying that the U.S. forces want to bring about regime change on their own, but rather to create a situation that would allow a popular uprising or a palace coup from within the Ba'ath Party itself to depose the regime.
Question: Have you seen much difference between Iraqis in the south of the country and those you've seen as you've neared the capital?
Synovitz: As the U.S. Army has been traveling through southern Iraq, they've seen many white flags on houses and many civilians carrying white flags. These are areas where there are predominately Shi'ite Muslims. Closer to Baghdad, we've been coming into areas that are predominately Sunni Muslim. It's been very rare to see white flags flying on residential houses or buildings here, although some civilians walking past U.S. positions are carrying white flags.
There is a division of the U.S. Army called the psy-ops, which is involved with civic affairs. They have Arabic translators who go out and meet and talk with people, as well as prisoners that are surrendering. The reaction they've seen of the civilians in Baghdad is that there is still a lot of fear in the population of the Ba'ath Party itself. People are very hesitant to commit themselves or give information about political developments in the city for the moment.