US Closes in on Baghdad Airport Battle Looms

NEAR BAGHDAD (Reuters)–US forces launched an assault on Baghdad airport on Thursday after armored units thrust almost unopposed to just 10 km (six miles) from the edge the Iraqi capital–military sources said.

Planes blasted targets in and around the city.

Parts of four elite Iraqi Republican Guard divisions were moving south–US officers said–setting up a potential showdown for the capital–the key prize in the two-week-old US and British war to topple President Saddam Hussein.

"A vise is closing and the days of a brutal regime are coming to an end,” US President George W. Bush told 20,000 people–including 12,000 camouflage-clad Marines–on a parade ground at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

But US and British political and military leaders said urban warfare in Baghdad could be prolonged and bloody and they refused to be drawn on when they might authorize a final push to capture the city of five million people.

"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,” Captain Frank Thorp said at the Central Command advance war headquarters in Qatar.

Questions remained over the fate of the two other Republican Guard divisions defending Baghdad. US officers said they had in effect been wiped out but defense analysts said they may have regrouped or withdrawn to prepare for the battle for Baghdad.

"This latest advance does raise questions–chiefly: What has happened to the Republican Guard? Have they been wiped out–or have they withdrawn from circulation to regroup in Baghdad,” French military consultant Colonel Jean-Louis Dufour said.

Reuters correspondents with US troops quoted military sources as saying forward units of the 3rd Infantry Division were 10 km from the southern outskirts of the capital–which Saddam has vowed to defend street by street.

US officers said they had met little resistance. "We’re pushing on really fast,” Captain Kevin Jackson of the Engineer Brigade of the 3rd Division told Reuters. "There doesn’t seem to have been much opposition so far.”

At Central Command–a US commander said special forces had also raided a residence of Saddam 90 km (56 miles) northwest of Baghdad and blocked the road to his hometown of Tikrit.

POWER GOES OFF IN BAGHDAD

US planes kept up their heavy bombardment of Baghdad’s center and outskirts. Reuters correspondent Samia Nakhoul heard powerful explosions repeatedly from the direction of Saddam International Airport–20 km (12 miles) southwest of the center.

Power went off in most of the capital on Thursday evening for the first time since the war began. At the same time–sustained barrages of artillery and anti-aircraft fire echoed from the southwestern outskirts towards the airport.

A Reuters correspondent outside Baghdad said the 3rd Infantry Division had fired 20 rockets towards Baghdad. Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf accused US forces of killing 14 people with cluster bombs and said US claims to be near Baghdad were "silly.”

"Their allegations are a cover-up for their failure. They’ve not been able to control any Iraqi city. We’re waging a war of attrition against this snake and we will be victorious,” he told a Baghdad news conference.

The latest advances followed an abrupt punch forward on Wednesday–when US forces surged past the towns of Kerbala and Kut and captured key bridges over the Euphrates and Tigris rivers–preparing the way for an assault on Saddam’s stronghold.

Although US officials said on Wednesday front-line troops had crossed a "red line” into areas where Iraqi forces might be most likely to use poison gas–Reuters correspondent Luke Baker saw signs the threat was now perceived to be easing. Baker said US soldiers had been told they could remove protective boots from chemical warfare suits they were wearing. US and British leaders have cited Iraq’s alleged possession of chemical and biological weapons as the reason for the war.

Saddam denies having such weapons.

BLACK HAWK CRASHES

US forces did not escape completely unscathed. A Black Hawk helicopter crashed near the city of Kerbala and a US F/A-18 Hornet fighter-bomber also went down. But US officials were not certain either incident was caused by hostile fire.

The US officials were also investigating a "possible friendly fire incident” involving an F-15E Strike Eagle plane and ground forces in which one US soldier was killed and several were reported injured or missing.

In Washington–a US defense official said the United States was looking into the possibility that a plane might have accidentally bombed a US artillery position south of Baghdad.

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said there could be tough combat to come–saying the Republican Guard "will probably represent some difficult days ahead and dangerous days…in terms of fighting.”

In northern Iraq–Kurdish fighters–backed by small groups of US soldiers–advanced towards the northern oil town of Mosul but were met by heavy machine-gun and rifle fire–Reuters correspondent Sebastian Alison said.

The US advances led financial market investors to push European stocks higher and pull out of safe-haven investmen’s. Oil prices were mixed–the dollar steadied and gold prices dropped to their lowest in nearly four months.

Reuters correspondent Sean Maguire said US forces also bombarded Kut on the Tigris–about 170 km (105 miles) south of Baghdad–on Thursday–consolidating their hold on the area.

Further south–US troops moved into the center of the Shi’ite Muslim holy city of Najaf–searching for paramilitary fighters–and tightened their grip on Nassiriya–where they appeared to be in full control of bridges over the Euphrates.

SHI’ITE CLERIC ISSUES EDICT

Central Command’s Brooks said a prominent Shi’ite cleric in Najaf had issued an edict urging Iraqis not to hinder US forces–a potentially important blow in the "hearts and minds” campaign US and British forces are trying to wage.

The majority of Iraq’s population is Shi’ite.

In the far south–British forces surrounding Iraq’s second city of Basra edged into the outskirts–capturing an industrial complex where Iraqi militia had spearheaded fierce resistance.

The United States lists 54 dead and 12 missing since the war began. Britain says it has suffered 27 dead.

Iraq has not given figures for military deaths–but Foreign Minister Naji Sabri said on Thursday more than 1,250 civilians have been killed. The figure could not be independently checked.

In Brussels–US Secretary of State Colin Powell said after talks with European Union foreign ministers that the United Nations should be a partner in running Iraq but the United States and Britain should lead the transition from a military administration to an Iraqi-run government.

He also said the North Atlantic Treaty Organization might provide peacekeeping troops for post-war Iraq.

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