| A statue of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on the outskirts of Basra before it was pulled down by British forces on Saturday. (Reuters)
Baghdad, April 6 (Reuters): An American military plane landed at Baghdad airport today as bombs and artillery crashed around the Iraqi capital which US forces said had almost been encircled.
The barrage flooded hospitals with casualties and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s information minister insisted that loyalist forces were pushing back the invaders.
But US troops said they had cut most approaches to the sprawling capital of five million people, the biggest prize in the 18-day-old war.
“We’re just about there,” Colonel Will Grimsley of the US 3rd Infantry Division said, asked if the American forces controlled all access to the capital.
As if to emphasise the point, the first US military aircraft, a C-130, landed at Baghdad’s international airport about one hour after nightfall. “At least one aircraft has landed at the airport,” said a source in the 3rd Infantry’s aviation brigade, who was at the airport.
He said the C-130 Hercules transporter landed around 8 pm local time (9.30 IST) on the western, military side of the international airport.
The source said the US could land up to three aircraft at the airport after dark.
It was not immediately clear whether the plane was carrying a load or was testing the landing strip which had been slightly damaged by US bombing during Friday’s assault on what was formerly known as Saddam International Airport.
US forces seized the airport, some 20 km southwest of the city centre, on Friday. They then said it had been renamed Baghdad International Airport. About 7,000 US troops are now said to be at the airport.
Once cleared and fully secured, the airport is likely to be used to bring in troops, equipment and supplies, easing pressure on a long and vulnerable supply chain that stretches to Kuwait in the south.
US military maps seen by Reuters showed only one main road, Highway 2, remained to be secured on the outskirts of the capital. It leads north to the oil city of Kirkuk.
“Look at it from this point of view — the 1st Brigade holds the airport and the west of Baghdad, the 2nd Brigade is securing the south, the 3rd Brigade is holding the northwest and the Marines are in the northeast,” Grimsley said.
In the north, a US plane bombed a convoy of American special forces and Kurdish fighters, killing 18 Kurds and wounding over 45, including the brother of Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani.
BBC world affairs editor John Simpson said he was in a convoy of eight or 10 cars when it was hit by an air strike, apparently called in by US special forces to deal with an Iraqi tank ahead.
In the south, British forces punched into the heart of Basra, changing tactics after encircling and gradually stepping up pressure on Iraq’s second city since early in the war.
Mortar and artillery fire thundered over Baghdad during the day. Shops were shuttered and streets deserted. “It is getting dangerous. The battle is in Baghdad now,” said Haitham Abdel-Rahman, 45, a mechanical engineer.
By night, a power cut plunged the city into darkness as the sound of heavy machineguns, multiple-rocket launchers and artillery ripped the air.
Panicked residents fled the fighting for Baghdad. With temperatures above 35 degree Celsius, thousands of families set out on foot and in overloaded cars.
A US spokesman said about 2,000 Iraqi soldiers had been killed since the assault on Baghdad’s outskirts began. No toll for civilian casualties in Baghdad was available, but International Committee of the Red Cross spokesman Roland Huguenin-Benjamin said: “During fierce bombardment, hospitals received up to 100 casualties per hour.”