The vanguard of U.S. ground forces dashed to the gates of Baghdad, stormed one of Saddam Hussein’s presidential palaces and seized a key objective Thursday night – Saddam International Airport.
The occupation of an airport bearing his name dealt a humiliating symbolic blow to Saddam and could allow U.S. forces to airlift troops, equipment and possibly a new, provisional government directly to the regime’s doorstep.
“Gentlemen,” Army Capt. John Whyte, 31, of Billerica, Mass., told an infantry company over the radio, “we are now entering Baghdad International Airport, formerly known as Saddam International.”
Other U.S. units established a new front line within six miles of the capital, a city of 5 million people that lost much of its electrical power Thursday night for the first time in the war.
Iraqi soldiers offered only modest resistance. Some Iraqi civilians cheered and flashed the thumbs-up sign to advancing American troops.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said U.S. troops “are closer to the center of the Iraqi capital than many American commuters are from their downtown offices.”
U.S. special operations troops also controlled the road between Baghdad and Tikrit, Saddam’s home town about 100 miles north of the capital, blocking that escape route, though new questions about Saddam’s physical condition emerged on Thursday.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said that recent intercepts have picked up no trace of Saddam and no evidence that he is still in charge. The intelligence official said CIA analysts now believe that videotapes of the Iraqi leader broadcast since the war began were made prior to the conflict. The evidence suggests that Baghdad’s defense is being run by Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Akhmed, said the official, who requested anonymity.
“It increasingly seems that Iraq is running out of real soldiers and soon all that will be left will be war criminals,” Rumsfeld said. Asked if Saddam could cut a deal now, Rumsfeld said: “There’s not a chance.”
Firefights erupted along several fronts Thursday, but most were fleeting.
At the airport, just 10 miles southwest of the city center, elements of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division blasted Iraqi positions with airstrikes and tank fire. Iraqi troops responded with only light weapons and brief bursts of artillery.
The runways initially were believed to be undamaged. A series of loud explosions rocked the area early Friday. The source was not immediately known.
Armored columns passed smoldering Iraqi personnel carriers and foxholes containing the mangled bodies of Iraqi soldiers.
“I don’t know what kind of bomb did that, but it sure as hell worked,” said 1st Sgt. Michael “Todd” Hibbs, 36, of Boise, Idaho.