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At Baghdad airport, a scene of mayhem

BAGHDAD INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT—Dawn broke through a milky mist at Baghdad's international airport Friday. Then the fighting began.

A barrage of machine-gun fire broke out from a wooded area. The soldiers of Apache Company, preparing to storm the VIP lounge next to the main airport building, dived for cover, their eyes wide with fear and adrenaline. The 25 mm machine gun of a nearby Bradley Fighting Vehicle blazed away in response. The Iraqi fire subsided.

A soldier in a Bradley shouted that the commander and driver of Track 3 had been hit. The commander had taken a bullet through the elbow. The driver had shrapnel in the face. A bullet also had clipped the Bradley commander's helmet. But both would live.

The company radio crackled. Fire was coming from the airport terminal. Bradleys swung around in a line and responded with sustained 25 mm machine-gun fire.

In the VIP lounge, 2nd Lt. Mike Washburn placed a trio of C-4 explosive charges on a pair of brass doors, about 20 feet high. The blast took out all the windows in the building.

The battle for the airport was fully engaged, a scene of explosions, gunfire and confusion that in the end would leave scores of Iraqis dead and some Americans wounded and the airport in U.S. hands. But for the men of Apache Company, at this moment, the chaos of the VIP lounge was what counted.

An Iraqi soldier dashed from a wooded area to a dirt hill. A soldier shouted over the radio that the Iraqi was carrying an AK-47 rifle and appeared to have explosives strapped to his chest.

"If you can see that he's behind the berm, then fire it up with 25 mm HE (high explosive)," said Capt. John Whyte, 31, of Billerica, Mass., the commander of Apache Company, 1-30th Infantry.

Wounded soldiers were being treated at a medical station. A flak jacket and chemical suit lay in a bloody heap. One soldier, 1st Sgt. Michael "Todd" Hibbs, 36, of Boise, Idaho, had a gash closed with stitches by a medic. Hibbs got the injury when he jumped off his Bradley to help the wounded Bradley commander. Next to him, another medic filled out an incident report for Hibbs' Purple Heart. Hibbs does not plan to wear it; he is retiring this year.

M1 tanks and Bradleys raced down the runway past a set of hardened aircraft bunkers and another pair of metal hangars. They set up a hasty defense. Heavy explosions erupted behind the hangars. Another long burst of 25 mm fire rang out. A column of thick black smoke rose above the trees on the perimeter of the airfield.

A Bradley churned to a halt in front of the medic station. A soldier manhandled an Iraqi prisoner from the back and shoved him to the ground. The Iraqi was a short, squat man with closely cropped black hair. He was dressed in a blue jumpsuit like an airport worker. His hands were tied behind his back. Two soldiers stood guard over him, their weapons at the ready.

The radio crackled to life again. Seventeen T-72 tanks, Iraq's best, had attacked some scouts at the airport's perimeter, reported Maj. Frank McClary, 39, of Andrews, S.C., Task Force 3-7 Infantry's operations officer. Three were destroyed, but there was no word on the other 14.

Another soldier broke in, shouting that a pickup truck had just passed in front of his Bradley and Iraqis had fired three rocket-propelled grenades at him. They all missed.

Heavy fighting seemed to be everywhere: staccato bursts of heavy machine-gun fire, thumping mortars and tank fire, red tracers arcing through the sky.

Iraqi artillery fire landed near the VIP lounge. The incoming rounds rocked the vehicles in ear-shattering, concussive blasts.

Apache moved back down to the southwest end of the airfield to rest and regroup. The men stripped off their gear just as a quick succession of AK-47 rounds pinged and zipped overhead from across a sand berm. They dived inside their vehicles for cover. Mortars responded in the direction of the fire and a column of tanks and Bradleys moved out. Within minutes, it was silenced.

Exhausted soldiers racked out on the ramps of their vehicles. One fell asleep holding an MRE (meals-ready-to-eat) packet in his hand.

A group of soldiers from second platoon lounged in the back of their vehicle. Some of them were trying to sleep. Others just gazed absently. Seizing the airport was supposed to be their final mission. They wondered now what the next few weeks would bring.

"Send in a jet now," said Sgt. Martin Perez, 22, of Colorado Springs, Colo. "It's time to go home."

Amazingly, they all had yet to fire their weapons. Some expected more out of their first day in combat.

"If this was going to be the grand finale, you would think they would've thrown more at us," said Cpl. Benjamin Bilby, 21, of Bartlesville, Okla. "But it just wasn't that much of a fight at all."

But the day had not yet ended.

A couple of hours later, the order came down to clear an Iraqi military compound south of the airport. The Bradleys went in, 25 mm machine guns and 7.62 mm coaxial machine guns blazing, but the compound was undefended. Inside they found AK-47 rifles, mortars, ammunition, and a SA-7 surface-to-air missile. Combat engineers were called in to destroy it. The company then pulled out. An M113 armored personnel carrier ran over several parked cars along the way, just for the hell of it.

Their final mission: Clear the main terminal. They gathered near a destroyed Iraqi guard post on the perimeter of the airfield. A half-dozen dead Iraqi soldiers lay nearby. The bodies looked unreal, like wax mannequins in a museum of the surreal. Flies gathered by the dozens on the face of one dead man. He looked to be in his mid-20s and had been shot in the face. An enormous pool of blood dried in the sand around his body.

Another dead Iraqi soldier lay nearby. He was crumpled up in a fetal position, one arm thrown up to cover where his head used to be. What was left of his face lay about 10 feet away, like a discarded bloody glove.

McClary arrived and walked over to look at the dead soldiers. He was unsure how many Iraqi tanks had been destroyed or how many Iraqis had been killed or taken prisoner. The figures had not been tallied yet.

"It's been a pretty scary day," he said, simply.

Two platoons from Apache Company were assigned to clear the main terminal. One soldier hacked down a glass door to the terminal with an ax. Soldiers moved methodically from one area of the terminal to the other. But it clearly was empty, and eerily quiet.

Portraits of Saddam Hussein hung on the walls. There were bullet holes through glass windows all across the front of the building. Duty-free shops were empty of goods, except for the fully stocked liquor store.

Outside, Cpl. Clint Costilow, 21, of Wesson, Miss. looked up at the front of the terminal.

"Saddam International, right there on the wall," he said. "That would make a good picture."

Staff Sgt. Hardy Griffis, 36, of Miami, interrupted him. Fires burned in the distance.

"It's Baghdad International now," he said.

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

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