Widespread Power Outage In Baghdad; Saddam Airport Under Siege

Special Forces enter presidential palace outside capital, seize documents.

[This story was updated on 04.03.03 at 8:49 p.m. ET.]

Explosions lit up a blacked-out Baghdad early Friday local time as U.S.-led ground troops moved closer to sections of the Iraqi capital, including Saddam Hussein International Airport.

Power went out in a large portion of Baghdad shortly before 9 p.m. (noon ET), the first widespread power outage to hit the city since Operation Iraqi Freedom began on March 19. Central Command said the power grid was not among the targets of bombing raids.

Late Thursday in Iraq, officers of the 3rd Infantry Division began a siege of the airport, located a few miles southwest of the capital. News agencies were still reporting gunfire in the area at press time and it was unclear whether the airport was under American control. Military planners expected the area to be heavily defended, since the headquarters of the Special Republican Guard's First Brigade are nearby.

Elsewhere Thursday, a day marked by 90-degree temperatures, troops rolled to within six miles of the smoke-hazed capital and U.S. Special Forces entered one of the presidential palaces of Saddam Hussein about 56 miles outside the city. The Lake Thartar Palace is a known residence of the Iraqi president and his sons, but no Iraqi leaders were discovered in the raid. Documents were removed that will be examined later, said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks in a briefing from U.S. Central Command. (Click for map of the battlefield.)

Coalition forces also captured several cities around Baghdad and continued their land attack to destroy the Republican Guard (see "What Is The Republican Guard?"). Troops faced minimal resistance from elite Iraqi forces, but U.S. military officials believe the elite troops are repositioning and that regular army units, historically less reliable and less experienced than the Republican Guard, have been called to backfill the Iraqi divisions torn by intense attacks of the last three days.

Central Command said the administration is "cautiously optimistic" about the progress of coalition forces, yet officials urged the public not to think the campaign will be a clean sweep. "There are still options open to the regime, including the use of weapons of mass destruction," Brooks warned.

There remains some concern that the Iraqi military is allowing coalition troops easy access to Baghdad and has chemical or biological attacks planned once troops have penetrated the city. Reports of dead Iraqi soldiers equipped with gas masks exasperate the fear. U.S. officials also cited a possibility that Hussein would attack areas in Baghdad and blame the United States, according to CNN.

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, meanwhile, continues to paint a delusional picture of the war for the Iraqi people, claiming coalition forces were still 100 miles from Baghdad. "They hold no place in Iraq," he said on Iraqi TV. "This is an illusion."

Other recent key developments:

  • At Camp Lejeune in North Carolina on Thursday to meet with families of Marines killed in Iraq, President Bush vowed, "We will accept nothing less than complete and final victory. The course is set. We're on the advance. Our destination is Baghdad."

  • Another message purportedly from Saddam Hussein and read by the Iraqi information minister urged the Iraqi people to keep fighting the coalition. God would disgrace those who don't, the message indicated. Meanwhile, no Iraqi leaders have been seen in days, and U.S. officials are unclear about who is in charge of the military.

  • Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri told Reuters that more than 1,250 civilians have been killed and more than 5,000 have been injured by coalition forces since fighting began.

  • On Thursday morning, Britain's defense secretary said that more than 9,000 Iraqi soldiers have become prisoners of war. In his daily press briefing, Rumsfeld said, "Iraq is running out of real soldiers. All that will be left are war criminals."

  • Rumsfeld also said that 45 percent of Iraq was not under the control of Hussein's regime, and the coalition controls 95 percent of the country's airspace.

  • In northern Iraq, Islamic militants Ansar al-Islam, a group believed to have ties to al Qaeda, had been manufacturing chemical weapons, according to Fox News. Manufacturing equipment and documents indicating that the group was developing three types of chlorine gas and ricin were discovered in the rubble of a targeted facility, U.S. officials told the network.

  • Jessica Lynch, the 19-year-old U.S. soldier rescued on Tuesday, was flown to Germany early Thursday morning for treatment at an American military hospital. Lynch sustained two broken legs, a broken arm and stab wounds in the fighting, but managed to shoot several enemy soldiers before she was captured, The Washington Post reported. Lynch was with the maintenance convoy that was ambushed on March 23 in the southern city of Nasiriya.

  • The group Human Rights Watch has condemned Iraq for positioning landmines in and around a mosque in northern Iraq.

    — Joe D'Angelo, Corey Moss and Jon Wiederhorn

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