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Iraq: U.S. Says It Has Captured Baghdad Airport, Closing In On Other Side

Prague, 4 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. troops say they are now in control of the airport in the southwest of Baghdad and are closing in on the capital from the other side.

To the north, they say they have effective control of roads leading from the capital to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. And in the south, British troops are reported to have set up a base inside Basra for the first time.

Troops from the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division stormed Saddam International Airport early this morning after bombarding it overnight. At least 320 Iraqi soldiers were killed in the fighting.

Residents of the suburbs near the airport were seen fleeing into the city center, which is still without electricity after a blackout blamed on Iraq.

U.S. commanders have hailed the seizure of the airport as a "dramatic political statement" to Saddam Hussein's regime -- though the air strikes mean the runway is now unusable. Central Command spokesman Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said: "Fifth Corps attacked Iraqi forces on the approach to Baghdad and seized several key intersections on the south side of the city. The attack continued through the night and by dawn this morning, the coalition had seized the international airport west of Baghdad, formerly known as Saddam International Airport. The airport now has a new name, Baghdad International Airport, and it is the gateway to the future of Iraq."

As news of the airport's capture came in, there was word of another advance by U.S. Marines, this time from Kut to the southeast. Officials say 2,500 soldiers from the Baghdad Division of Iraq's elite Republican Guard surrendered to the advancing coalition forces.

But Central Command's Brooks said the Republican Guard are still active and that it will take time to take control of Baghdad. "It will take time to gain a degree of control and security over the top of all of Baghdad. We know that. We can see that from some of the towns we are already dealing with. And so I would not want to put any kind of time limit at all on when that will occur, when it begins, and certainly not when it would be complete," Brooks said.

As the coalition's advance on Baghdad continued, the Iraqi information minister went on television to read the latest statement said to be from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. He vowed to defend the city. "If the enemy decides to enter Baghdad, he will be confronted by the believers who have devoted their lives to protecting the nation. Let every Iraqi family in Baghdad be assured that our faithful Iraqi men will confront the enemy. I repeat what I have said to you in the past -- but today I see it even closer -- that we are not waiting for the final victory, because it is as though victory is already in our hands because of our belief in God," Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf said.

In Basra, the BBC reported that British troops have set up a base in the outskirts of the city, establishing what they said is a "toe-hold" in the city. They also said they killed eight Iraqi militiamen today in a street battle on the edge of the city. British forces have encircled the city for nearly two weeks and have staged incursions into the city to try to target Saddam loyalists and gunmen.

But there was bad news too for the coalition -- an apparent suicide car bomb attack at a checkpoint northwest of Baghdad last night. Central Command said three coalition soldiers, a pregnant woman, and the driver were killed in the explosion.

On the political front, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said a postwar Iraq will be run by Iraqis. The pledge came in a leaflet that will be handed out by British troops in Iraq and sent by e-mail.

Blair said, "A peaceful, prosperous Iraq will be run by and for the Iraqi people, not by America, not by Britain, not by the UN." He said British troops will leave "as soon as they can."

Also today, British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon defended the use of cluster bombs in the campaign. Hoon told the BBC that cluster bombs fulfill a "particular role" on the battlefield and that they are "perfectly legal."

A single cluster bomb contains many bomblets that spread out over a wide area. Human rights group condemn their use because some of the bomblets can fail to explode, remain live, and pose a threat to civilians.