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Airfield gives U.S. new option to supply combat troops

TALLIL AIRFIELD, southern Iraq—Five days after a U.S. Army infantry division seized control of this long-dormant air base, the U.S. Air Force landed a C-130 transport plane Thursday on a runway freshly cleared of truck parts and concrete blocks.

U.S.-led forces now can use Iraq's second-largest airport—smaller only than Saddam International Airport in Baghdad—to deliver materiel far up a supply line that stretches several hundred miles into Iraq from Kuwait.

Pleased with their success, airmen posted a sign on a fence that said, "Bush International Airport."

The airfield is about 5 miles from An Nasiriyah, where Marines continued to skirmish Thursday with Saddam loyalists. Some house-to-house combat was reported. Though still more than 100 miles south of Baghdad, the field is expected to become a major hub for supplies and personnel as the U.S.-led coalition prepares to attack the capital city.

Tallil, built decades ago for Iraqi fighter-bomber jets, was the busiest airfield during the country's war with Iran in the 1980s.

American forces bombed the airfield in the first Persian Gulf War. It's been off-limits to Iraqi aircraft since then, because it is in the southern no-fly zone that U.S. and British pilots patrol.

The tower and surrounding buildings are largely gutted.

"It's like a place that's been in mothballs, a cocoon in a time warp, and we've opened it back up," said Lt. Col. G. Petrequin of the Air Force Air Mobility Command.

Petrequin and Air Force Col. A. Myers said the runways, 9,000 and 12,000 feet long, were in relatively good condition. The Iraqis had placed heavy debris all along the runways to prevent American forces from landing there immediately, but most of those obstructions had been pulled out of the way by Thursday.

Areas around the landing strips and surrounding bunkers and aircraft hangars were littered with unexploded bombs, most of them American and British duds dropped 12 years ago, Myers said. A smaller amount of Iraqi munitions, probably scattered in coalition attacks in the last war, also were found around the airfield.

In recent days, U.S. crews destroyed bombs from the previous war.

The C-130 delivered undisclosed supplies Thursday morning, on a flight that the skeleton Air Force crew manning the runways had not expected until minutes before landing. It took off less than an hour later.

"We're used to dealing with things that aren't planned," Myers said. "Now we can take more."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.