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Iraq: U.S. Troops Say They're In Control Of Baghdad Airport

Prague, 4 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. troops say they are now in control of Baghdad's international airport after fighting there this morning.

Troops from the 3rd Infantry Division stormed the airport early this morning after bombarding it overnight. They are still checking its many buildings and say they have already repelled one counterattack from Iraqi troops.

The news of the airport's capture comes as coalition warplanes again have been bombing the capital, which is still without electricity after its first blackout of the war last night. The U.S.-led coalition says its forces did not target the city's electrical grids and does not know why the power is out.

Correspondents say they've seen people fleeing suburbs near the airport and heading into the city center.

A commander involved in the airport capture says the move represents a "dramatic political statement" to Saddam Hussein's regime.

Agencies report that at least 320 Iraqi soldiers were killed in the fighting. There are no reports of U.S. casualties.

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is traveling with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division. He spoke with a commander this morning: "[U.S. Army] Major [Joffery] Watson says some 3,000 to 4,000 Iraqi troops -- including two tank battalions, two mechanized infantry battalions, and two light infantry battalions -- were decimated by combined air and ground attacks. The exact number of Iraqi casualties at the [Baghdad airport] is not immediately available."

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld yesterday said coalition forces are "closing in" on the capital. "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," Rumsfeld said.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said today the seizure of the airport would be a "huge psychological blow" to the Iraqi regime. But Hoon said soldiers from the elite Republican Guard may have retreated back into the capital to regroup.

U.S. and British leaders have said the hardest part of the campaign is likely to be winning Baghdad, where they could be lured into bloody street-by-street fighting with a risk of heavy civilian casualties.

Top U.S. General Richard Myers warned last night that a lot of tough fighting still lies ahead. Myers, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Fox News that U.S.-led forces might not be in a hurry to take Baghdad with much of the rest of the country already overrun.

Meyers indicated that the coalition may instead try to isolate the Iraqi leadership. "Baghdad becomes less and less important. You have a regime inside that can't communicate with the people. All they can do is hunker down and try to survive," he said.

Meanwhile, Iraqi officials have once again tried to dampen speculation -- eagerly fueled by U.S. and British leaders -- that Saddam Hussein may have been killed. Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri told the BBC today that Saddam is alive and well. But he refused to say whether he had seen the Iraqi president personally.

Also today, Iraqi state television quoted Saddam as having given tips to senior officials on how to resist invading forces. He is said to have told officials: "Victory is certain and it is in our hands.... We must not let the enemy decide and hit, but we must find ways to exhaust him and tear through his ranks and not give him the chance to catch his breath."