U.S. military sources say U.S. troops have launched an assault on Iraq's Saddam International Airport, only 20 kilometers from the center of Baghdad. Witnesses say they saw heavy artillery fire around the airport, and some reports say dozens of people have been killed. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu is embedded with U.S. forces as they make their way toward the Iraqi capital. She tells VOA News Now's Erin Brummett the airport could be under U.S. control sometime Friday.
Ryu: The airport right now, the airfield is being seized by units of the 3rd Infantry Division. They made rapid progress into the airport. Apparently they have come under some small arms fire, mainly AK's and rocket-propelled grenade type of things, but they haven't had that much resistance going into the airport. It's not secure yet, from what I'm told, but they are working on securing it. And they will have some sort of mop-up operation, they believe, within the next few hours. And they are fairly confident they will have the airport within their security perimeters by morning.
Brummett: We understand that there is a very large power outage, if not total power outage, in Baghdad. Was there power at the international airport at the time that U.S. troops moved in to seize it?
Ryu: I don't think they had power when they did it.
Brummett: U.S. troops with night-vision equipment would have been able to operate regardless of whether there was light or not at the airport?
Ryu: U.S. forces do have night-vision goggles, very advanced night-vision goggles, that allow them to see very clearly in the dark. And so there is a distinct advantage to U.S. forces operating in total darkness. We shouldn't speculate as to what happens, but, yes, there is an advantage for U.S. forces working in darkness.
Brummett: How would U.S. forces use the facility once it is under their control?
Ryu: I can't tell you that. That's operational security. Sorry.
Brummett: I understand. Tell us about your particular experience today and how might it have been different from days past. I understand from other reports in the area that there is a definite change in the momentum and the drive toward Baghdad. Can you describe that for us?
Ryu: 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. We're not seeing that kind of incredible amount of activity that U.S. forces were faced with when they were first coming up from southern Iraq, up towards Baghdad. The paramilitary units, many of them, have been degraded through intensive bombardments, air strikes.
They have been pinpointing headquarters of these Fedayeen, Saddam paramilitary forces, as well as the Baath Party members. And they have been doing this systematically for the past two weeks. So, there is a feeling that a lot of these commanders and the command-and-control aspect of the paramilitary, as well as possibly the Special Republican Guards, these are the special bodyguards, if you will, of Saddam Hussein that have been guarding Baghdad, there is really no one telling them exactly what to do and there is no upper echelon of authority directing these people. And so they are sort of operating haphazardly. And as a result, the U.S. forces and even British forces and everyone who has been trying to contain them has been able to contain them fairly well in the past couple of days.
They're still finding artillery, tanks, all kinds of things on the ground. They have been using unmanned aerial vehicles to find them. They have found them, and they are taking them out. So, I think that there has been a considerable degradation of their power and of their resources and also of their weapons and armaments. It's had a huge difference on the momentum factor.
Brummett: Alicia, are U.S. military officials giving any kind of an assessment yet on the situation at the airport in terms of are they saying why there might not have been quite as much resistance as perhaps might have been expected, and have they expressed any surprise in the ability of U.S. forces to seem to be able to move fairly efficiently in taking control or moving in on this facility?
Ryu: Yes, I think that there has been some degree of surprise or, rather, puzzlement would be the better word. They are extremely puzzled as to why Saddam Hussein hasn't put up more of a fight, especially coming into Baghdad.
Now, the airport is on the outskirts of Baghdad, and there is a tremendous way to go in terms of seizing the city itself. And so this fight is not over by any stretch of the imagination. But I do think that they are surprised, and rather pleasantly so, on this end that they have been able to do this without too many casualties and without the chemical attack especially that they thought would happen once they crossed over that red line that they thought would be the trigger for chemical attacks, which is about 80 kilometers outside of the city limits. And that has not happened.