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American airfield in Iraq gives `unlimited potential' for U.S. jets

TILLIL AIRFIELD, Iraq—This fast-developing American air hub in southern Iraq now provides a way station for tank-busting A-10 Warthog jets, a key weapon in the U.S.-led assault on Saddam Hussein's Medina division of the Republican Guard.

The first A-10 came into Tillil Saturday night, and through the day and night Sunday the jets flew hard-turning arcs in the sky near the embattled city of An Nasiriyah.

In combat, the jets fly low in close support of ground troops as they hunt enemy armored vehicles. With Tillil, the jets have a place to launch missions within an hour of Baghdad and a safe haven if they run into mechanical problems or run low on fuel.

"We've got unlimited potential right now," said Lt. Col. G. Petrequin of the U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command. "We've got two big runways and plenty of space to park planes. Use your imagination."

Tillil is the third airport that the Air Force's Tanker Airlift Control Element has established in the Persian Gulf for the war, and it is the first in Iraq.

Along with the A-10s, Tillil has seen the number of flights from supply-laden C-130 transport planes leap from one late last week to more than 30 Sunday.

The well-paved airstrips sit amid a vast desert plain at 10 feet above sea level.

Iraqis tried to make it inconvenient for Americans to commandeer the spot by leaving large concrete blocks, broken-down tanks and other heavy debris in the runway. Getting it off was much like a county fair tractor pull, said one officer. But the pavement was not damaged.

"We could have patched that, but it would have taken much longer," said Air Force Capt. Marc Supinski of Springfield, Mass.

So far, the transport planes have been mainly airlifting in troops, said Air Force Lt. Col. Victor J. Manges of Griffith, Ind.

"It's forward. It's in the country," Manges said. "It's another way to bring in stuff, and it's a lot faster than going by land."


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