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Coalition Claims Control of Airport, Forces Poise on Baghdad’s Edge

The capture of the airport comes as thousands of U.S. Marines massed on the outskirts of Baghdad in an apparent effort to cordon off the city.

Fighting around the airport reportedly continued into Friday as coalition forces worked to secure complete control of the facility’s buildings. Reporters in Baghdad could hear heavy artillery fire from the direction of the airport late Friday local time (approximately 1pm EST).

“The thud of artillery fire is reverberating across the capital, from the southwest. It just started,” Reuters correspondent Samia Nakhoul reported. “We can’t tell if it is Iraqi or American fire.”

CNN reporter Walter Rodgers, embedded with the U.S. Army’s Third Infantry Division, also said the area around the airport was still “hostile.”

Rodgers said the unit was “under constant fire, and has been for hours and hours” according to comments posted on CNN’s Web site. More than 20 Iraqi tanks were reported to have been operating around the perimeter of the airport, located some 12 miles southwest from downtown Baghdad.

In the wake of the reports of renewed fighting, Reuters reported that U.S. military commanders would send hundreds of additional U.S. troops to help reinforce the airport.

Military officials told Reuters correspondent Luke Baker that soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division and the 94th battalion, which is an engineering unit, would reinforce the Third Infantry Division at the airport within hours.

Earlier Friday, U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks told reporters during the daily U.S. Central Command press briefing in Qatar that U.S. troops had attacked Iraqi forces on the approach to Baghdad and seized several key intersections on the south side of the city.

“The attack continued through the night, and by dawn this morning the coalition had seized the international airport west of Baghdad, formerly known as Saddam International Airport. The airport now has a new name, Baghdad International Airport, and it is the gateway to the future of Iraq,” Brooks said.

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf claimed in a Friday news conference that the Iraqi military had surrounded U.S. troops and said the airport would become a “graveyard” for coalition forces.

Sahaf also said that Iraq may take non-conventional action against the coalition forces at the airport on Friday night.

Asked if that meant that Iraqi forces plan to use weapons of mass destruction, Sahaf said, “No. That’s not what I said … What I meant are commando and martyrdom [suicide] operations in a very new, creative way.”

Iraqi officials told Reuters reporters in Baghdad Thursday that their troops had captured five tanks and one attack helicopter during fighting near the airport.

The continued battle for the airport comes as thousands of U.S. Marines are reportedly massing on Baghdad’s outskirts, some in full chemical protection gear, battling pockets of Iraqi resistance as they go.

Military officials have said that they planned to form a cordon around the city in order to isolate Saddam’s regime and attempt to avoid street-to-street fighting in order to take control of the capital.

Sahaf admitted during his Friday news conference that an “isolated island” of U.S. forces was at the gates of the capital.

As the battle was playing out at the airport, Baghdad’s city center was plunged into darkness Thursday night, local time.

The blackout marked the first widespread power loss in the capital since the war started more than two weeks ago. American officials had pointed to the fact the lights were still on, as proof coalition forces were not targeting civilian infrastructure.

Only minutes after the power failed, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Richard Myers said American aircraft had not struck the power supply.

“Central Command has not targeted the power grid in Baghdad,” Myers told reporters, adding that American officials were investigating the source of the outage.

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