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U.S. Infantry Occupy Part of Baghdad's Airport

U.S. Infantry Occupy Part of Baghdad's Airport

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NEAR BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- U.S. infantry occupied part of Baghdad's airport Friday and sealed the entrance closest to the capital, fighting to seize a strategic prize as coalition forces converged on Saddam Hussein's seat of power.

Tanks of the U.S. 3rd Division rumbled through the entrance of the sprawling Saddam International Airport, past a building-high portrait of the saluting Iraqi president.

Gunshots were heard from inside, and it was unclear how many Iraqi troops remained in the airport, about 10 miles southwest of central Baghdad.

Combat patrols were moving through the area, which has numerous military and civilian buildings, Lt. Col. Scott Rutter, commander of the 7th Battalion of the 7th Infantry, told Associated Press Television News.

The airport is a key first objective for infantry and Marines converging on the capital from the south. Securing it will allow coalition forces to bring in more troops, military equipment and humanitarian aid.

"What's happening ... is we basically occupied the airport," Rutter said as his forces blocked the airport entrance closest to the capital. He added a message to the people of Baghdad: "This is the first step possibly of many more ... We're here, and they can rise up and deal with the regime appropriately and (prevent) some future battle inside the city."

However, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested the airport was not completely under U.S. control.

He told The Associated Press that it had seemed like U.S. forces had taken the airport, "and then it got more confusing" with continued fighting.

Myers also said Republican Guard divisions were moving around the outskirts of Baghdad to the east and west -- though it was unclear whether they were trying to reinforce units fighting the American advance, moving into more defensive positions or fleeing.

U.S. Infantry Occupy Part of Baghdad's Airport

In the approach from the southeast Thursday, Marines fought in close combat in Kut, at one point mowing down a small group of Iraqis carrying AK-47s who tried a suicide charge against a tank.

To the northwest, at Lake Tharthar, Special Operations forces raided one of Saddam's palaces.

The focus, though, was on the impending battle for Baghdad.

On the way to the airport, the 3rd Division rolled through a veritable shooting gallery -- a single-lane road on the capital's southern outskirts with Iraqi fighters firing from all sides.

For four hours in punishing heat, tanks and Bradley armored vehicles tried to pick out soldiers and fighters amid civilians standing next to houses, watching the armored column pass.

"They're running alongside us," Staff Sgt. Bryce Ivings of Sarasota, Fla., shouted into the intercom.

"Fire, fire, kill them," said Capt. Chris Carter from Watkinsville, Ga., the commanding officer of Alpha Company. "Got it."

Then Ivings spotted another group of fighters.

"He's got a weapon, oh ... there's civilians in the way, he's using these people are shields," Ivings said. He did not fire.

Under fire from the main gun of the M1A1 Abrams tank and the 25mm cannon on the Bradleys, trees 200 yards off the road across farmer's fields exploded in orange flashes. At least seven pillars of black smoke rose from the horizon.

At least one U.S. soldier was killed by friendly fire. He was outside his vehicle when U.S. forces blasted an Iraqi tank nearby.

Three were wounded by Iraqi fire, and three soldiers collapsed from heat exhaustion as temperatures rose to about 90 degrees outdoors and over 100 degrees inside the tanks and Bradleys.

The troops destroyed more than seven Iraqi armored personnel carriers and more than 15 Iraqi tanks. The number of Iraqis killed was unknown.

Iraqis fired a rocket-propelled grenade that hit the turret of one of the Bradleys, injuring one of the soldiers seriously.

Another soldier was shot in the leg as he stepped from his refueling vehicle along the route.

"My point man was hit in the turret. He's now on the street unprotected," shouted 1st Lt. Jeff McFarland. Infantrymen ran out of the Bradley and pulled the soldier to safety.

Along the road from the Euphrates River to Baghdad, there were hundreds of burning vehicles, civilian and military. Hundreds of dead Iraqis, most in uniform, lay next to the vehicles.

Once at the airport, the 3rd Infantry moved to take the field's military complex and its 13,000-foot runway, according to a San Antonio Express-News report.

"We expected a lot of resistance at the airfield because of the military side to it," the newspaper quoted Army Maj. Mike Johnson as saying. Johnson said the west end of the airport, has military barracks and, in the past, had armored personnel carriers and tanks.

Earlier Thursday in Kut, soldiers fought Iraqis in a date palm grove, tossing grenades at each other. Late in the battle, a small group of Iraqis with assault rifles tried a suicide charge against a tank.

"At the end, they came charging in a human wave -- 10 to 15 guys with AKs that we mowed down," said Lt. Col. B.P. McCoy. He said 30 Iraqis were killed.

A Sea Knight helicopter evacuated three injured Marines. Two suffered minor gunshot and shrapnel wounds, but the third died in the helicopter. Another died when the truck he was driving slammed into another on a dusty road, injuring at least 10 others.

Across Iraq, fighting flared throughout the day:

--South of Baghdad, the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry, came under sniper fire and saw something truly chilling, according to CNN's Walter Rogers: upward of 20 dead Iraqi troops wearing gas masks. Rogers, attached to the unit, gave no indication that chemical weapons had been used.

--At Lake Tharthar, about halfway between Baghdad and Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, Special Operations for the first time raided a presidential palace. They overcame sporadic resistance from anti-aircraft artillery fire and fighters on the ground.

--In Basra, British troops told Associated Press Television News they had found the villa of Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majeed, the cousin of Saddam who is known as "Chemical Ali" for ordering Iraqi forces to use chemical weapons on Kurds in northern Iraq in 1988.

--Marines from the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment, crossed the Tigris River on their way to Baghdad. Along the way they encountered not Iraqi soldiers, but places were Iraqi soldiers had been: Empty bunkers, built atop levees with commanding views of the main roads. A few pieces of clothing. An occasional piece of food, or a coffee pot.

Asked where the soldiers had gone, local people pointed northward, toward Baghdad.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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