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Dark Baghdad lies in wait

Kuwait, April 3: They had shone bright, as if radiating defiance, through the rain of bombs and missiles on Baghdad, all of the war fortnight. For the first time this evening, the Iraqi capital plunged into darkness as US forces mounted a charge on the airport.

At least three explosions went off in central Baghdad with the coalition forces within sight of the city’s skyline as President George W. Bush declared that a “vise is closing”.

The US denied having targeted electricity supply in Baghdad, but it is possible that power has been switched off by the Iraqis themselves in preparation for the street-by-street fighting that could start once the Americans enter the city.

US forces specially equipped to fight by night have night-vision devices, but the Iraqis know their territory better. The blackness of the night combined with the smoke from oil trenches that are burning in a ring of fire makes for effective cover.

Saddam International Airport is being targeted with the intention of securing it to fly in more troops and equipment. US forces have to not only physically occupy the airport but also destroy air defences around it.

Special forces of the US 101st Airborne Division have set up intermediate bases in the Iraqi desert from where they are “leapfrogging” and hitting at the defences of Baghdad from the west and the south.

A breach in the defence between two divisions of the Iraqi Republican Guard has allowed the vanguard of the main land thrust of the coalition forces to get within sight of the city’s skyline.

American forces now also supervise, at different points, the three main highways leading out of the Iraqi capital — south, east and the road to Syria.

There is no official statement from the coalition land forces command. However, network journalists embedded with frontline units reported intermittently that the advance was at the gates of Baghdad.

One network reported that US forces were “six miles” from Baghdad around 3 pm (1730 IST) Kuwait time. In contrast, journalists reporting live from Baghdad said there was no sign of consternation in the Iraqi top brass. Military commanders and ministers had held a string of meetings and conferences with journalists through the day.

US forces are specially trained to operate by night. A further advance is expected through the night, but mainly from the thrust along the Tigris, from the south-east of Baghdad.

A sweep into the city by the main body of the coalition forces — the 3rd Mechanised Infantry — from the south-west looks implausible in the absence of other fronts maturing simultaneously.

However, there are defensive measures which military observers were expecting the Iraqi forces to take that have not yet materialised. Among these were a possible sabotage of bridges and a breach in the embankments of the Tigris or a dam on the Euphrates to deliberately flood the plains and marshes and retard the advance of coalition forces.

The coalition forces have reported having found at least two bridges to which charges were fixed but not detonated.

It is possible that the actions of the 101st Airborne Division were crucial here. The division was pressed into service in Najaf, central Iraq, and now again to the west of Baghdad.

Typically, the tactics of the 101st, the largest air assault division with some 270 helicopters and gunships, involve penetrating enemy lines in small squads of four or five.

The squads report on enemy defences and guide gunships to attack tanks and artillery using electronic signals. It is possible that the division has now also established a base inside Iraq in the Samiya Desert, from where it can be deployed rapidly for operations in several directions.

The 7th Cavalry — the armoured probe — of the US 3rd Infantry was at the periphery of the airport, about 20 km west of the city centre, this afternoon.

The other prong of the US thrust, approaching the city through Al Kut on the Tigris, was some 70 km from the city.

US Central Command spokesmen in Doha, Qatar, claimed that the Republican Guard’s Baghdad Division was destroyed. But Iraq dismissed as “baseless” the US claim. “This is a baseless statement as the Baghdad Division is in command of the situation and it enjoys high morale to fight the enemy and destroy it,” a military spokesman said on Iraqi TV.

Fighting by the Iraqi forces, so far, has not been reported to be consistently heavy all along the arc of defences to the city’s south.

One attack was caught live on television. Cameras showed a smouldering US tank that was believed to have been hit by a missile or an RPG7. A US army Black Hawk helicopter and an US Air Force F/A-18 Hornet were hit by Iraqi surface-to-air missiles.

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