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Britain Hails Fall of Baghdad Airport as Blow to Iraqi Government

British officials say the fall of Baghdad's airport would deal a heavy blow to the Iraqi government, and could let coalition forces fly in fresh troops and supplies for the drive on the capital.

British defense chiefs say the capture of the airport would be a key step toward taking Baghdad and ending the rule of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told British radio Friday the offensive at the airport should convince Baghdad's citizens that coalition forces are at the gates of the capital. "It's a huge psychological blow to the regime. It demonstrates to the regime and we hope as well to the people of Baghdad that we are there," he said. "We know that they have been told by elements of the regime, the leadership, that there are no American forces, coalition forces, anywhere near Baghdad. They will be able to see for themselves soon how untrue that is."

British defense officials say that once the airport is secured, it will be used to rush in fresh troops and equipment for the coalition's drive to capture Baghdad.

Mr. Hoon said there is still uncertainty about the fate of thousands of Iraqi Republican Guards who put up little resistance as the American forces moved up toward Baghdad. The defense secretary said the elite Iraqi units may have pulled back into the capital. "That clearly is an option that we have got to allow for. Some of them may simply have deserted. We are aware that large numbers have done so," saqid Mr. Hoon. "Some may have been killed in the various battles that have taken place as coalition forces have advanced on Baghdad. But we've also got to allow for the possibility that they have retreated into the city and are preparing their defenses."

Mr. Hoon said the coalition should not expect a quick victory in capturing the capital of five-million residents. He said there have been instances of fierce fighting and serious resistance since the invasion began two weeks ago and that could happen again in and around Baghdad.