Only a few trucks and foot soldiers to halt march on to airport

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The Independent Online

When the assault finally came, the men on the back of pick-up trucks offered little resistance to the US armour rolling into Saddam international airport. Accompanied by the sounds of explosions, American tanks moved to take control of one of the most potent symbols of the regime.

When the assault finally came, the men on the back of pick-up trucks offered little resistance to the US armour rolling into Saddam international airport. Accompanied by the sounds of explosions, American tanks moved to take control of one of the most potent symbols of the regime.

They encountered virtually no opposition, save from scattered firing by foot soldiers, according to Bob Schmidt of ABC News, reporting from the airport tarmac. However, later reports suggest that several hundred Iraqi troops died in the American drive on the airport.

For the first time, artillery fire could be heard overnight from inside the city, which was experiencing its first blackout since the war started a fortnight ago. Uniformed men had also set up roadblocks in the city for the first time. Sporadic US artillery and rocket fire was launched towards Baghdad once darkness fell. Four large explosions rocked the city centre early today and 20 explosions were heard in the south of the city. Tracer rounds raced through the sky near the airport.

The power first went out at about 6pm. Sustained power cuts threatened to disrupt water supplies and the sewage system, spreading disease at a time when temperatures were soaring.

It was unclear why the power was out. General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the US military was not targeting the power supplies.

Despite the sporadic bombardment, Nadim Ladki, a Reuters correspondent, said the city was strangely quiet. Oil fires continued to burn around Baghdad, sending up clouds of black smoke. "We hear occasional blasts of American fire but see no Iraqi response," he said. "It is very weird."

Most of Baghdad's power comes from the al-Doura power station south of the capital. After the power cut, the city was quiet except for the tuk-tuk of generators.

Despite heavy shelling, which reportedly killed 83 people in the village of Furat on the airport road, Pentagon officials said the runways had not been damaged, opening it up as a potential supply link for US troops massed on the doorstep of Baghdad, home to 5 million people.

Despite the airport's grand fascia, bearing President Saddam Hussein's name, the airport conveys no sense of opulence. Baghdad was a main stop-off in the 1930s but today has painfully few businesses to occupy the airport's duty-free shops, cafes and car hire agencies. In the departure lounge, scrawled in red letters beside one of many Saddam portraits, are the words "Down with America!" ­ written in Arabic and English. There have been no commercial flights since 18 March.

But the psychological and and strategic importance of the airport, south-west of Baghdad, was clear from the level of coalition bombing in the past few days. The area was thought to be home to key Iraqi facilities and US military sources suggested last night that troops had discovered an underground tunnel system.

Most of the airport was taken by special operations forces and the 82nd Airborne Division, who were followed by elements of the 3rd Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne.

During skirmishes on the city outskirts, the heat took its toll as much as Iraqi gunfire. Three soldiers collapsed from heat exhaustion as temperatures rose to about 38C (100F) inside the tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. As the armour advanced to the airport, only 12 miles from the city centre, troops passed roads littered with discarded Iraqi combat boots and uniforms from deserting soldiers.

A CBS correspondent, Jim Axelrod, who had stopped a couple of miles short of the airport, said: "As we got closer people stopped waving, stopped cheering, and we began to hear a lot more gunfire and mortar, but remarkably little opposition as the 3rd Infantry has rolled into the airport."

American troops said they had expected the airport to be defended by three brigades, but reporters taken there earlier by Iraqi officials yesterday afternoon saw little sign of military defence. Iraqi civilians were ordered to head for the airport to mount a late defence, according to CNN.

Iraqi officials claimed, however, that their forces captured five American tanks and one helicopter and either seized or killed their crews during fighting near the airport yesterday evening. It is only a couple of miles from the city's suburbs where coalition forces are likely to encounter much stronger resistance.

Despite the US advances, Iraqi television aired footage of a relaxed and smiling President Saddam meeting more than a dozen government and Baath party officials, including Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan.

The television announcer said President Saddam was discussing the state of Iraqi troops' battle readiness.

John Irvine, of ITV News, was near the airport as shells started to land nearby. He said: "Just as we reached our destination, we heard artillery. Quickly we abandoned our car as shells landed. We were taking cover with the Iraqi army. The soldiers chatted and we waited for what seemed like an eternity. But then, in a break in the barrage, we decided to get back in the car and flee."

The streets were almost deserted with little signs of a preparation for an invading army. There were suggestions that the Republican Guard and other loyal troops had pulled back into Baghdad and were taking over the top floors of homes and offices. Hundreds of lines of defences are said to be awaiting coalition forces. Apart from the Republican Guards, Iraqi opposition figures say the attackers could face many smaller strongholds in the city.

"In every district, the Baath party has at least one headquarters, recently supplied with different kinds of weapons, ranging from pistols to RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]," said Hafed Nejim, an opposition leader in exile."One should expect every school, mosque, hospital, sports club and university to be turned by the regime into a bastion for resistance."