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Airport falls, suicide threat rises

Baghdad, April 4 (Reuters): US troops have seized Baghdad international airport in their biggest victory of the war to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, drawing a bitter Iraqi threat to hit back with “non-conventional” means.

Information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, admitting that an “isolated island” of US forces was at the gates of the capital, said Iraq would strike back, perhaps as early as on Friday night.

“We will commit a non-conventional act on them, not necessarily military,” he told a news conference.

Asked if Iraq would use weapons of mass destruction — which it denies possessing — Sahaf said: “No, not at all. But we will conduct a kind of martyrdom (suicide) operations.”

As Baghdad went into the evening of day 16 of the war, heavy artillery rumbled from southwestern Baghdad, the direction of the airport.

“The thud of artillery fire is reverberating across the capital, from the southwest. It just started,” a Reuters correspondent said.

The US and Britain attacked Iraq on March 20, accusing its president of hiding chemical and biological weapons. They have made no confirmed finding but remain on alert for a gas attack as their forces approach Baghdad.

Sahaf was speaking after the US military said the second suicide car bombing of the war on Thursday had killed three soldiers, a pregnant woman and the driver, in northwestern Iraq.

Southeast of Baghdad, a US Marine officer told Reuters correspondent Sean Maguire the Nida division of the Republican Guard had “ceased to exist as an effective fighting force”.

A US spokesman said earlier that about 2,500 Republican Guards from a different division had surrendered.

“Just last night there was a (military field) report of about 2,500 soldiers of the Baghdad Division surrendering, stripping off their uniforms,” Captain Frank Thorp told Reuters.

That claim prodded world financial markets out of their wait-and-see mode. European stocks jumped, safe-haven bond prices fell and oil extended losses to a dollar a barrel.

Despite the swift advances of the past few days, the US military said it would take time to get a grip on Baghdad.

“We know there are forces inside that have intent to fight,” Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said at Central Command. “It will take time to gain a degree of control and security.”

Terrified civilians streamed into Baghdad to escape fighting around the airport, just 20 km southwest of the centre, Reuters correspondent Samia Nakhoul reported.

The airport was a key objective for US forces, who can use it as a forward base in any battle for this sprawling city of five million people. Brooks said its capture contributed to US efforts to prevent any escape by Saddam or his associates.

He said air raids had already made the runway unusable.

Brooks said the US military was confident that it had breached the defensive ring around Baghdad, but Iraqi Special Republican Guards were still operating in the area.

He said special forces in Iraq’s western desert had found a suspected chemical warfare training school. US forces also reported finding vials of unidentified liquid and white powder at two sites near the town of Latifiya, just south of Baghdad.

The Bush administration said a lethal struggle could lie ahead for U.S. forces arrayed on the edge of Baghdad.

“I still want to caution everybody. We are still in the middle of a battle — a battle that remains deadly. It’s not over,” a US official said in Washington.

The apparent suicide attack took place on Thursday night, about 18 km from the Haditha dam in northwestern Iraq, the US military said.

“A civilian vehicle approached a coalition checkpoint. A pregnant female stepped out of the vehicle and began screaming in fear,” a statement said.

It said the vehicle then blew up. Apart from the deaths, two soldiers were hurt. The nationality of the troops was unclear.

Four US soldiers died in a suicide car bombing at another checkpoint on Saturday. Iraq had promised more such attacks.

It was unclear when US forces intended to move into Baghdad, but US Marine Captain Matt Watt said the plan was to encircle the capital and gradually reduce its defences.

“We’re going to surround Baghdad and start taking chunks out of where the enemy are,” he told Reuters correspondent Matthew Green, travelling with the Marines.

The US military said 320 Iraqi soldiers had been killed in fighting for the airport. Dozens of Iraqi troop carriers, trucks and anti-aircraft guns had been captured or destroyed.

US troops later fought off an Iraqi counterattack.

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