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Iraq: Coalition Forces Attack Airport, Move Into Baghdad's Outskirts

Washington, 4 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials say American forces in Iraq have been closing in on Baghdad's city limits. News reports from the front say allied troops have taken control of at least part of the capital's airport.

U.S. Army units, backed by American and British warplanes, began attacking Baghdad's airport last night. Early today, Captain Michael McKinnon of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division said U.S. forces have seized a foothold and now control about one-third of the airport.

Power, meanwhile, went out in many parts of the capital. The Americans also controlled some southern outskirts of the city.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld described the allied advance this way: "They [coalition forces] are closing on Baghdad. They've taken several outlying areas and are closer to the center of the Iraqi capital than many American commuters are from their downtown offices."

Not true, according to Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf. He told reporters yesterday that Iraqi fighters have trapped coalition forces at Umm Quasr and Basra to the south, and at Nasiriyah and Najaf in central Iraq. And he denied the allies were anywhere near Baghdad or its airport.

"They [American officials] are lying every day," al-Sahhaf said. "They are lying always, and mainly they are lying to their public opinion. Therefore, what they have said about or alleged about a breakthrough [near Baghdad], this is completely an illusion."

Much of Baghdad went dark last night, a situation that would seem to benefit American forces, which are equipped with night-vision goggles. But General Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said allied forces did not target the capital's electricity grid, and he has no idea why the power failed.

The Anglo-American coalition also has been strengthening its northern front. U.S. forces are reported to have joined up with Kurdish fighters to capture a strategic bridge and the town of Bardarash. They stand between the allies and the important Iraqi oil city of Mosul.

And in southern Iraq, British forces report that they are closing in on central Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, which in peacetime had a population of 1.3 million people. Iraqi forces have held the city since the early days of the war, and the British say they have shelled them sparingly to avoid civilian casualties.

The British say Iraqi troops have been keeping Basra's people within the city against their will. U.S. President George W. Bush, addressing Marines at a base in the state of North Carolina, said such behavior is typical of Hussein's military.

"In combat Saddam's thugs shield themselves with women and children. They have killed Iraqi citizens who welcomed coalition troops. They force other Iraqis into battle by threatening to torture or kill their families. They have executed prisoners of war."

To the cheers of the Marines and their families, Bush promised that Hussein would be thrown out so the people of Iraq can form their own government.

"The Iraqi people deserve to live in peace under leaders they have chosen. They deserve a government that respects the rights of every citizen and ethnic group. They deserve a country that is united, that is independent and that is released from years of sanctions and sorrow. Our coalition has one goal for the future of Iraq -- to return that great country to its own people."

Postwar Iraq also is on the minds of ministers of the European Union and NATO. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met with ministers from both organizations yesterday in Brussels, Belgium, to discuss how great a role the United Nations should have in helping to reconstruct Iraq socially and politically once the fighting stops.

Powell said he was pleased that none of the NATO ministers objected to the alliance having a postwar role in Iraq, although no specifics have been discussed yet. And the secretary repeated yesterday the American position that the United States and Britain should have what he called "the leading role" in reconstructing Iraq.

"It was the coalition that came together and took on this difficult mission at political expense, at the expense of the treasure, the money that it costs, but at the expense of lives as well," Powell said. "And when we have succeeded and when we look down the road to create this better life for the Iraqi people, to rebuild this society, to rebuild this country after these decades of devastation brought by Saddam Hussein, I think the coalition has to play the leading role in determining the way forward."

Both Powell and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said they agree that the United Nations should have a role in postwar Iraq, but the question is how much. Britain appears to be interested in a greater UN role than the United States wants. And yesterday, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder insisted that the UN role should be "central."

"After this war, the United Nations must play the central role as far as the future of Iraq and the new political order is concerned. I would warn against speculating at this point about the details of the necessary reconstruction of Iraq."

Like France and Russia, Germany was opposed to U.S. and British Iraq policy during UN debate before the war began.

The U.S. government already has set up a commission to administer Iraq as soon as the fighting ends. It has even chosen a civil administrator for this interim period, a retired American general. Rumsfeld has said allied forces intend to hand over authority to an interim government of Iraqis within months after the war ends.