U.S. troops have occupied most of Baghdad's international airport and are continuing to advance on Saddam Hussein's seat of power. But it remains unclear how soon a full scale offensive on the Iraqi capital would be launched.
Troops of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division have seized control of most of Baghdad's main airport, although some buildings still have to be cleared of pockets of resistance.
The U.S. military says the capture of the strategic asset followed a night of fighting in which hundreds of Iraqi troops were killed. The airport is fewer than 20 kilometers from downtown Baghdad.
VOA correspondent Alysha Ryu, who is traveling with American forces as they near the Iraqi capital, reported overnight that U.S. troops made rapid progress in their drive toward the airport. "I think that probably the momentum change has come in the sense that the harassment type of attacks that have come on U.S. forces last week by the paramilitary and those kinds of elements are decreasing, if not abating quite a bit," she said.
Capturing the airport puts Baghdad itself within the range of U.S. artillery. It will also allow allied troops and materiel to be flown in near the front, greatly relieving existing supply lines that stretch all the way back to Kuwait. Those supply lines have been under sporadic attack by Iraqi militiamen.
A British spokesman at coalition headquarters in Qatar, Group Captain Al Lockwood of the Royal Air Force, said the airport is a big strategic prize for the coalition. "It's a great strategic asset, four miles by two miles, large area of land, good runways, good facilities, gives us a lot of flexibility of options to use that piece of space for future operations," he said.
In moving into the airport, U.S. forces say they killed more than 300 Iraqi soldiers and captured or destroyed dozens of Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery, troop carriers and trucks. U.S. troops later fought off an Iraqi counterattack, knocking out five Iraqi tanks.
Despite the capture of the airport, VOA's Alysha Ryu reports from her vantage point with American forces, that the real battle for Baghdad lies ahead. "The airport is on the outskirts of Baghdad, and there is a tremendous way to go in terms of seizing the city itself," she said. "And, so this fight is not over by any stretch of the imagination."
The Iraqi military warned that Baghdad would "swallow whole any invading forces." On Iraqi television Friday, Iraq's information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, continued to speak defiantly, but acknowledged that coalition forces are on the edge of Baghdad. He was reading a statement issued in the name of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whose location and physical condition have not been independently verified since the start of the war two weeks ago.
Most Baghdad residents were not able to see the broadcast, because power was cut in the city Thursday night.
Coalition warplanes continued to bomb Baghdad overnight, targeting presidential palaces and the headquarters of the Iraqi air force.
Meanwhile, U.S. Marines have begun tightening their grip on the southern town of Nasiriyah, breaking the resistance of Iraqi irregular forces which had exercised control there over the past week and persistently harassed coalition supply lines.