Prague, 3 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. says its troops are now just outside Baghdad and are gearing up to take the city's international airport.
The move this morning by troops in the 3rd Infantry Division brings the U.S. Army to just 15 kilometers south of the city's center.
U.S. Central Command spokesman Frank Thorp remarked, "Coalition forces at this point are outside of the Baghdad airport and are positioning themselves to engage that fight at a time of our choice."
Capturing the airport would not only be an important symbolic victory for coalition forces, but would also give them the ability to bring in supplies and equipment.
Iraqi authorities immediately dismissed the claims. Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf said: "That's completely unbased. That's not true....[laughs] Saddam Airport.... No, this is silly."
Al-Sahhaf spoke as another U.S. military spokesman, Vincent Brooks, said U.S. Special Forces raided a presidential palace overnight and are preventing Iraqi troop movements on the road north of the capital.
The latest advances follow a major push forward on two fronts yesterday, when U.S. troops captured bridges on the Euphrates River to the west and the Tigris River to the east. U.S. officials said they killed 500 Iraqi soldiers who tried to counterattack.
On this latest advance, they say there was little resistance from divisions of the elite Republican Guard, which has been pounded repeatedly from the air in the last week. But they said they have reports that four divisions of the guard have been moving south today to confront the U.S. advance.
It is unclear if those units are meant to be moving from north of the city into the capital itself, or if they are leaving the city and heading south.
Observers say that such a scenario would be surprising, since it would leave the Iraqi troops vulnerable to coalition air attacks. Why do that, they ask, when the regime's best chance of defense is to lure coalition forces into Baghdad?
If and when the coalition does try to take the airport, it will only be the first battle for control of Baghdad.
British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said the rapid advances do not mean the campaign is nearing an end. And he said British forces outside Basra would only go into that city when they judge that the time is right. "Key suburbs of Basra have now been taken. We will go further into the city at a time of our own choosing," Hoon said.
Basra has been touted as a model for what might happen in Baghdad -- that the allies would wait outside and attack targets important for propping up the regime.
But this could be a long haul. Surrounding Baghdad could be tricky. Troops are advancing from the southwest and southeast of the capital, but some 1,000 or so U.S paratroopers are known to have landed in the north of the country.
Frank Umbach, a defense and security expert at Germany's Council on Foreign Relations, told RFE/RL: "One of the big questions is whether a northern front will be built up in the next few days, either on the basis of these 1,200 men, which must be much more increased in numbers, or another military option would be to build a northern front on the western part of Iraq, where the U.S also has acquired a major airfield, which can be used by military transporters. The third option would be that some part of the attack axis would go around Baghdad from the south to the north."
But he said that this, too, would stretch the U.S. until reinforcements arrive from Kuwait.
Before going into Baghdad proper, the U.S. is likely to try and "probe" what is there first -- to see what kind of resistance it is up against.
Seizing ministries and other important centers of power and infrastructure might help prevent the nightmare scenario many fear -- urban fighting, with its risk of heavy civilian casualties.
Umbach said, "He [Saddam] will try to close the street so that nobody can leave the city, withdraw the troops into the areas where the civilians live, and try to attack the U.S. there and hoping for a very bloody warfare, which then can maybe mobilize people in the Arabic world."
Civilian casualties in the 15-day-old war are already mounting, fueling anger in many countries, particularly Iraq's Arab neighbors.