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Frontline Report: Baghdad Airport 'Extremely Secure' Despite Sporadic Weapons Fire - 2003-04-06

VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu is with U.S. troops at Baghdad International Airport. She spoke with VOA's Rebecca Ward about the situation there.

Ryu: [Sound of explosion] As you can hear in the background, it's quite noisy, and there are explosions going on all around me. So, you'll have to speak up just a little bit.

Ward: Well, Alisha, you describe bombs going off, what is going on essentially there?

Ryu: Well, it's evening now, and basically what's been happening is, there's been a lot of artillery, both in terms of trying to destroy a lot of the weapons caches they have found in and around the airport. And then, of course, in the evenings, they have had sporadic type of, I saw anti-aircraft artillery go up several times tonight. I'm not quite sure exactly what they are shooting at, but every time they [Iraqis] hear a plane or anything that sounds like an aircraft, the anti-aircraft artillery goes up, and you'll see the red tracers going up in the air. But, I just spoke to someone in the U.S. Air Force, and they don't seem very concerned about it. They [U.S.] said that they [artillery] are not very effective.

So, there is some resistance coming in from Baghdad, and they're still manning those anti-aircraft weapons, and things like that. But they're not hitting anything. So, there doesn't seem to be that much concern here. The airport itself is extremely secure. I'm sitting in right next to one of the hangars at the moment, and no one seems to be in any panic mode when these artilleries go off.

So, they say that the strategic bombing of Baghdad is over. Now, it's just a matter of being able to, you know, keep the airport the perimeters secure. And actually, I have some news of a big development with the Third Infantry Division today [Sunday].

Ward: Yes, tell us about that. There was an incursion into Baghdad, a second incursion.

Ryu: Yes, it was an incursion in the sense of -- what the Third Brigade of the Third Infantry Division was trying to do was, basically, to move from the southwest of the city all the way to the northeast side. Now, they are at the Tigris River, on the northeast side of the city. And what they're attempting to do is sort of encircle the city itself. They have cut off all the major roads that are going in from the north and traffic going in and out of the north. And they're blocking and isolating the city from the north. And they expect to do that from all corners of north, west, south and east, so that they will have a secure perimeter around the city. They expect to have that done within the next 24 hours.

Ward: Where do they believe that the toughest resistance will come from within the city? Is it actually the center of the city?

Ryu: They [U.S. forces] believe that the center of the city is fairly heavily fortified. I believe Saddam Hussein referred to it as "Fortress Baghdad." They [U.S. forces] are still not certain exactly the strength of the Special Republican Guards, and some of the paramilitary militias that are supposedly in there. Before the war, the numbers that were being talked about, in terms of the Special Republican Guards, were staggering. There were some estimated at 10,000 to 20,000. No one is sure. No one has made a count of these things. So, it's very difficult for them to assess what kind of resistance they will find, which is why they are doing these kind of probing attacks into the city, to see what the resistance is.

When the Second Brigade went in there on Saturday, they encountered resistance, but it was very small arms mostly rocket-propelled grenades, what they call dismounted [inaudible] -- they're people on pickup trucks and those kinds of things. It was not well coordinated; it was not well organized. So, they believe that they still have some you know, in effect, a resistance that is not well organized, and they can do much to fight that kind of thing. So, they're [U.S. troops] fairly confident that they can get over any kind of resistance that they [Iraqis] may put up.

Ward: Alisha, let me just ask you. We keep hearing these what sounds like rocket launchers in the background. Can you describe what's going on, and what are we hearing?

Ryu: Yes, well actually, they're artillery and they're [inaudible] that are being fired. We're not sure exactly what the targets are. They're going into downtown Baghdad, of course. You know, this is ongoing. Whenever they find any kind of target that they can hit -- meaning tanks, artillery positions, and kind of things [sounds of explosions begins and continues]. They will either call in close air support to hit those things with precision munitions, or with artillery. And this has been going on for several days now.

So, this is not the strategic bombing of Baghdad that we saw initially in the initial opening of the war. This is more of a very precise well-targeted type of thing. So, it is very loud. It is very explosive. But I don't see any panic in the sense of the troops here. So, I think it's mostly outgoing and not incoming.

WARD: Tell us about Baghdad itself. You described in earlier interviews people waving, not in Baghdad, but as you were traveling toward the airport, people waving and ...

Ryu: : [Explosions] I'm sorry, I can't hear you right now. Can you say that again?

WARD: Well, I'll try to wait until it calms down, but you had described Iraqis on the way to the airport waving and saying, 'Hello,' to the U.S. troops traveling there. And I'm wondering if U.S. troops encountered any of that within Baghdad itself.

Ryu: : [Explosions continue] The troops really haven't gone into the center of Baghdad, and haven't really seen what the... haven't had any interaction with the Iraqi people inside of Baghdad. So, it's very difficult for them to assess what's going on inside there. They've had some intelligence reports of people fleeing, yes. They know that there are civilians who have been trying to leave.

They are also noticing that some Iraqi officers are trying to leave the city as well. We asked them, "How do you know that they're civilians versus Iraqi officers? What if they're taking off their officers uniforms and donning civilian clothing?" And they said, "Well, they're not doing that." They're actually just -- they haven't been very specific with me, but they said, "We can tell the civilians from the Iraqi officers." And they've been able to weed them out among the civilians.

How long that will last, I don't know. Because, when the situation gets dire, I think, they fully expect those Iraqi officers to try to mingle in with the civilians and try to leave the area as well. So, this is the hard part now of trying to protect the civilian population, and go after these Special Republican Guards and paramilitary militia members that may try to mingle in with the civilians. And that will be the toughest work, because that's where the U.S. troops will be most vulnerable.