US forces occupied part of Baghdad’s airport before dawn today, putting them nine miles from the capital after a fierce battle with Iraqi fighters.
Gunshots were heard from inside Saddam International Airport, but it was unclear how many Iraqi troops were there.
As day broke in Iraq, live pictures from Associated Press Television News showed US tanks arriving at the airport under a giant sign showing Saddam Hussein.
US soldiers were shown searching Iraqi troops within the airport. The images also showed a burning Iraqi tank.
Soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division reached the airport late on Thursday.
By this morning, tanks had rolled in and soldiers were clearing the area building by building, according to a CBS reporter with the unit who said he heard sporadic gunfire.
The airport, which includes a military facility, is a key first objective for infantry and Marines converging on the capital from the south. Securing it will allow coalition forces to bring in more troops, military equipment and humanitarian aid.
In the approach from the south east, in Kut, Marines fought in close combat with a small group of Iraqis who tried a suicide charge against a tank. To the north west, at Lake Tharthar, special forces raided one of Saddam’s presidential palaces.
The focus, though, was on the battle for Baghdad, which the Iraqi regime has promised to defend.
“God willing, we will teach the enemy lessons on the battlefield that it will not forget,” said a Republican Guard commander identified by the Arab-language satellite television Al-Jazeera as commander of the Baghdad Division.
The officer, whose name was not given, said 17 of his men were killed in the recent combat, but denied US claims that the division had been destroyed.
On the way to the airport, the 3rd Infantry Division rolled through a veritable shooting gallery – a single-lane road on the capital’s southern outskirts with Iraqi fighters firing from all sides.
For four hours in punishing heat, tanks and Bradley armoured vehicles tried to pick out soldiers and fighters amid civilians standing next to houses, watching the armoured column pass.
“They’re running alongside us,” Staff Sgt Bryce Ivings shouted into the intercom.
“Fire, fire, kill them,” said Captain Chris Carter, the commanding officer of Alpha Company. “Got it.”
Then Ivings spotted another group of fighters.
“He’s got a weapon, oh ... there’s civilians in the way, he’s using these people as shields,” Ivings said. He did not fire.
Under fire from the main gun of the M1A1 Abrams tank and the 25mm cannon on the Bradleys, trees 200 yards across fields exploded in orange flashes. At least seven pillars of black smoke rose from the horizon.
At least one US soldier was killed by friendly fire. He was outside his vehicle when US forces blasted an Iraqi tank nearby. Three were wounded by Iraqi fire, and three soldiers collapsed from heat exhaustion as temperatures rose to about 90 degrees outdoors and over 100 degrees inside tanks.
The troops destroyed more than seven Iraqi armoured personnel carriers and more than 15 Iraqi tanks. The number of Iraqis killed was not known.
Iraqis fired a rocket-propelled grenade that hit the turret of one of the Bradley armoured vehicles, seriously injuring one of the soldiers. Another soldier was shot in the leg as he stepped from his refuelling vehicle along the route.
“My point man was hit in the turret. He’s now on the street unprotected,” shouted First Lieutenant Jeff McFarland. Infantrymen ran out of the Bradley and pulled the soldier to safety.
Along the road from the Euphrates River to Baghdad, there were hundreds of burning vehicles, civilian and military. Hundreds of dead Iraqis, most in uniform, lay next to the vehicles.
Once at the airport, the 3rd Infantry moved to take the field’s military complex and its runway.
“We expected a lot of resistance at the airfield because of the military side to it,” Major Mike Johnson said.
The west end of the airport has military barracks and, in the past, had armoured personnel carriers and tanks.
Earlier on Thursday in Kut, soldiers fought Iraqis in a date palm grove, tossing grenades at each other. Late in the battle, a small group of Iraqis with assault rifles tried a suicide charge against a tank.
“At the end, they came charging in a human wave – 10 to 15 guys with AKs that we mowed down,” said Lt Col. B.P. McCoy. He said 30 Iraqis were killed.
A Sea Knight helicopter evacuated three injured Marines. Two suffered minor gunshot and shrapnel wounds, but the third died in the helicopter. Another died when the truck he was driving slammed into another on a dusty road, injuring at least 10 others.
Across Iraq, fighting flared throughout the day.
South of Baghdad, the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry, came under sniper fire and saw about 20 dead Iraqi troops wearing gas masks, according to CNN’s Walter Rogers.
At Lake Tharthar, between Baghdad and Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, special forces for the first time raided a presidential palace. They overcame sporadic resistance from anti-aircraft artillery fire and fighters on the ground.
In Basra to the south, British troops found the villa of Gen.