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Ground troops clash over Baghdad airport

Iraqi spokesman: 'This is an illusion'

A bombed-out plane at Saddam International Airport early Friday.
A bombed-out plane at Saddam International Airport early Friday.

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PENTAGON BRIEFING, THURSDAY

U.S. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers

Rumsfeld: U.S. troops have captured several outlying areas of Baghdad.

Myers: U.S. forces did not knock out power to large areas of Baghdad late Thursday.

IRAQI INFORMATION MINISTRY BRIEFING, THURSDAY

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf

Coalition forces "are not near Baghdad. ... They are not even [within] 100 miles."

Coalition forces have no control over the city of Umm Qasr in southern Iraq.

U.S. Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch was being "treated" at a hospital in Nasiriya when U.S. forces "took her."
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(CNN) -- With U.S. boots on the ground at Saddam International Airport, sustained explosions rocked Baghdad on Friday morning, illuminating the darkened capital where the electric power is off and the power of the regime might be fading.

The bombardments came in waves, sometimes with explosions rocking the capital one after another for minutes on end. The bombing began about 2 a.m. Friday [5 p.m. Thursday EST]. One explosion was so powerful that it lit up the blacked-out capital, and a fire engulfed a structure.

Three hours later, the city shook from more multiple explosions, and antiaircraft fire shot into the sky.

American armored divisions launched the assault on the airport, 12 miles from the center of the Iraqi capital, as U.S.-led coalition troops advanced on the city.

The battle for the airport continued after dawn.

Iraqis have tried to stop the U.S. advance by charging with dump trucks, pickup trucks and buses filled with Iraqi soldiers firing their weapons, according to reports from CNN correspondent Walter Rodgers, embedded with the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry, near the airport. The Army calls the soldier-filled vehicles "suicide buses," Rodgers said.

U.S. tanks easily destroy the Iraqi vehicles, he said. At least one of the buses blew up as if it had explosives inside, Rodgers reported. (Full story)

A U.S. military official said there have been no U.S. casualties so far.

The coalition might begin its attempt to install a new government in Baghdad even before the war is over, perhaps as soon as next week, a senior U.S. defense official said Thursday.

"I think you'll see in the next week an organizing event that will start to bring that into focus," the official said. Asked where that would occur, the official said, "In Baghdad."

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested Thursday that coalition forces might not be gearing up for an urban conflict within Baghdad, but might instead isolate Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and cut off his communications.

"When you get to the point where Baghdad is basically isolated, then what is the situation you have in the country?" Myers said.

"You have a country that Baghdad no longer controls, that whatever's happening inside Baghdad is almost irrelevant compared to what's going on in the rest of the country."

Coalition wants airport as staging area

Shortly before the airport assault, around 9 p.m. local time, the lights in Baghdad went out and Iraqi authorities began closing checkpoints in the city, a source in Baghdad told CNN.

It was the first time the city's electricity has gone off in the two-week-old bombardment of the city. U.S. Central Command said the city's power system was not targeted. It was unclear whether Iraqi authorities turned off the power or collateral damage from an airstrike caused the outage.

U.S. Central Command said it could not confirm the airport had been seized. Pentagon officials stopped short of saying the airport was under coalition control but told CNN the airport would be a "key target" as its troops moved into Baghdad.

The airport would likely be used as a staging ground for helicopters and aircraft to aid movement of troops around the capital.

Arabic-language TV networks Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV said U.S. forces met strong opposition and heavy shelling. Iraqi satellite television called reports that the airport had been seized "lies."

U.S. officials emphasized that the coalition might be approaching the most dangerous stage -- the "tipping point" when the Baghdad regime feels it might soon lose power.

Two indicators were emerging: Officials said recent information confirmed "high" potential for the use of chemical weapons, and there is intelligence that Saddam's regime might attack areas in Baghdad, killing civilians and blaming the United States.

U.S. troops captured several outlying areas of the Iraqi capital, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday.

"Coalition forces have caused such attrition to the Republican Guard units ringing the capital" that Iraq has "been forced to backfill its Baghdad defenses with regular army units -- forces that they have historically considered less reliable -- which is a sign that they know they are in difficulty," Rumsfeld said. (Full story)

The U.S. Army's V Corps and 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were leading the advance, reporting minimal resistance as they closed in on the city.

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf called reports of coalition forces on the outskirts of Baghdad "an illusion."

"They're not even [within] 100 miles," he said. "They are not in any place. They hold no place in Iraq. This is an illusion. ... They are trying to sell to the others an illusion."

An Iraqi TV anchor read a statement purportedly from Saddam exhorting his military leaders to keep up the battle or let other commanders take over.

"You have to be faithful to the promise you made," the statement told Baath Party officials. "The enemy wants to invade your sacred land. Now it is your turn to show your true faith and loyalty." (Full story)

Other developments

• The Pentagon said Thursday that an intelligence analysis indicated videotapes of Saddam broadcast by Iraqi television in recent weeks were likely shot before the war began March 19. (Full story)

• President Bush traveled to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for a speech and to meet with families of Marines killed in action in Iraq. He vowed, "We will accept nothing less than complete and final victory. The course is set. We're on the advance. Our destination is Baghdad." (Full story)

• Grand Ayatollah Sistani, whom Iraqi authorities in Najaf had held under house arrest, was released and issued a fatwa calling on Iraqis not to interfere with coalition forces. Last week, while in Iraqi custody, Sistani had issued a fatwa urging Muslims to resist. (On the Scene)

• The New York-based group Human Rights Watch condemned Iraq for placing antipersonnel land mines in and around a mosque in Kadir Karam in northern Iraq before abandoning the area March 27, calling the action a violation of international humanitarian law. (Full story)

• The fate of those aboard a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter remained unclear Thursday, a day after the chopper went down near Karbala in south-central Iraq. The Pentagon said seven soldiers were killed and four others wounded and later rescued. But a Central Command statement said six people were on the Black Hawk and that casualties could not be confirmed.

• U.S. officials also said that a U.S. Navy F/A-18C Hornet went down over Iraq early Thursday and that a search-and-rescue operation was under way for the pilot, who ejected. U.S. military officials confirmed that they are investigating whether a U.S. Patriot missile might have shot down the plane.

CNN correspondents Christiane Amanpour, Jane Arraf, Ryan Chilcote, Bob Franken, Art Harris, Tom Mintier, Karl Penhaul, Nic Robertson, Walter Rodgers, Brent Sadler, Ben Wedeman and Barbara Starr, and producer Mike Mount, contributed to this report.

EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN's policy is to not report information that puts operational security at risk.


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