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U.S. captures Baghdad airport; Saddam appears on TV

BAGHDAD INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, Iraq—His airport now renamed and under U.S. control, his citizens streaming out of his capital, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein suddenly reappeared Friday and urged loyalists to resist U.S. forces with "heroic confrontations."

Saddam's appearance, broadcast by Iraqi television but unseen by most residents of a capital without electricity, ended days of silence by the Iraqi leader. One reference suggested that he survived a war-opening missile attack on his quarters.

"Perhaps you remember the valiant Iraqi peasant and how he shot down an American Apache with an old weapon," Saddam said, grimly reading from what appeared to be handwritten notes.

As he spoke, U.S. Army soldiers fortified their control of the airport west of Baghdad. U.S. Marines engaged in their heaviest fighting of the war and seized a key crossroad southeast of the city. And U.S. commanders pondered their next move.

"We're there," said Lt. Col. Dave Pere, a senior Marine operations officer. "We're the dog that caught the car. Now, what do we do with it?"

A senior administration official said U.S. forces would continue to apply pressure on enemy forces in Baghdad and the remainder of Iraq not already under allied control.

The plan for the next phase of the battle of Baghdad remained unclear, though it appeared that U.S. troops would remain outside the capital for some time, perhaps launching isolated probes to root out paramilitary soldiers and Baath Party enforcers.

As neighborhoods are "disinfected," the senior official said, coalition forces and a new Iraqi interim government will begin to provide food, water, electrical power and health care, taking over the work of Saddam's government.

"We will move on Baghdad at our pace, when the battlefield is at our advantage," said Navy Capt. Frank Thorp, a U.S. military spokesman. "We expect the fighting will get tougher as we get closer to the heart of the city."

Danger remained tragically manifest on Friday.

In another suicide bombing, three U.S. soldiers died when a car carrying an apparently pregnant woman exploded at a checkpoint in northwest Iraq. The U.S. military death toll rose to at least 57.

Information Minister Saeed al Sahhaf threatened that Iraqi forces would launch a major "unconventional" attack on U.S. forces, but he insisted that it would not involve chemical or biological weapons.

U.S. officials said Saddam's repetition of an Iraqi claim that a villager shot down a U.S. helicopter on March 24 did not constitute conclusive proof that he was still alive, but strongly suggested it. Military officials said the helicopter incident remained under investigation.

Iraqi television later showed a videotape of what it said was Saddam walking through a crowd of cheering Iraqi citizens, a highly unusual event for a man known to be obsessed about his personal security. It could not be determined if the person shown was Saddam or one of his purported doubles.

U.S. analysts said both videotapes could have been made days ago.

They also said that Saddam might have fled during the electricity blackout that cloaked Baghdad in darkness Thursday night as U.S. forces reached the outskirts of town. The blackout persisted Friday through much of the city.

"The tape does not give us firm conclusions one way or the other," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "We don't know, and in the bigger scheme of things, it doesn't matter."

Meanwhile, U.S. Marines and Army troops engaged in continuing combat with pockets of Republican Guard divisions and other Iraqi soldiers.

Southeast of Baghdad, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force fought the Nida division of the Republican Guard in a pitched, two-hour tank battle on the road from Kut.

Eight Marines were wounded when one of their 70-ton Abrams tanks was destroyed and two other tanks were hit by rocket-propelled grenades. Two Cobra attack helicopters were hit by ground fire and forced to make emergency landings, but returned to their bases in southern Iraq, officers said.

Near Kut, Marine units accepted the surrender of 2,500 members of the Republican Guard—believed to be Iraq's best-trained forces.

A small force from the Army's 101st Airborne Division, after securing the south central city of Najaf, moved to secure a bridge north of the city of Karbala and prevent reinforcements from reaching Baghdad from the south.

Farther south in Samawah, 82nd Airborne Division troops pushed across the Euphrates River, flushing Iraqi paramilitary units from the north side of the city and moving closer to the division's goal of clearing out the coalition's main supply route.

West of Baghdad, soldiers from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division consolidated their control of the airport, which was seized overnight after a fierce, six-hour battle. It no longer is known—at least to U.S. forces—as Saddam International Airport.

"The airport has a new name now—Baghdad International Airport—and it is the gateway to the future of Iraq," said U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks.

Officials said U.S. military forces suffered only light casualties during that battle, which raged only 10 miles from the center of Baghdad. One 3rd Infantry soldier was shot in the elbow and two others received light shrapnel wounds.

Nevertheless, "It's been a pretty scary day," said Maj. Frank McClary, 39, of Andrews, S.C., an infantry operations officer.

Another U.S. soldier and Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly, who also served as editor-at-large of The Atlantic Monthly magazine, died when their Humvee flipped into a canal during the advance on the airport, officials said.

Throughout the day, U.S. troops continued to clear the terminal and other areas in and around the airport, but the airfield remained securely under U.S. control, said Army Col. John Peabody, engineer brigade commander for the 3rd Infantry.

The airport's defenders were mostly Iraqi conscripts, not the more experienced Republican Guard, President Bush was told during his daily war briefing, according to a senior administration official who requested anonymity.

Although the Iraqis attacked U.S. forces vigorously, the thrusts were uncoordinated, amateurish and ineffective, said the official, who added: "It's almost sad."

The capture of the airport probably prevents Iraq's leaders from fleeing by air. The 101st Airborne Division may base helicopters at the airport to conduct raids in the Baghdad area, officials said.

The nature of the resistance at the airport concerned top officials because it left open the possibility that Saddam's best soldiers withdrew to Baghdad for a campaign of urban warfare.

In coming days, the senior official said, U.S. forces also could find themselves fighting remnants of the Republican Guard in Karbala, Kut and Tikrit, as well as Baghdad.

Many thousands of residents of that city joined in a mass exodus Friday, fleeing to the north and northeast as U.S. forces strengthened positions south and west of a city still hammered by air strikes.

City residents reportedly filled cars, trucks and buses and created six-mile traffic jams, particularly in the direction of Diala, a province northeast of the capital.

Remaining defiant, al-Sahhaf, the information minister, said the airport would be a "graveyard" for coalition troops.

"We will do something which I believe is very beautiful," he said, referring to an attack he said would be accomplished "in an unconventional way."

Would that involve weapons of mass destruction?

"What I meant are commando and martyrdom operations in a very new, creative way," al-Sahaff said.

It was not known if he was referring to car bombings like the one that claimed three more U.S. soldiers Friday at a checkpoint about 11 miles southwest of the Haditha Dam and about 80 miles east of the Syrian border.

The car stopped, and a woman who appeared to be pregnant emerged and screamed in apparent distress, according to Brooks, the U.S. general. As U.S. troops approached, the car blew up, killing the soldiers, the woman and the driver. Four U.S. soldiers were killed in a similar attack at a checkpoint south of Baghdad last week.

In other developments Friday:

_U.S. troops searching the Latifiyah industrial complex south of Baghdad found thousands of boxes of white powder, nerve agent antidote and Arabic documents. The discovery alarmed commanders, but subsequent examinations suggested that the white powder was a conventional explosive, officials said.

A spokesman for a U.N. team that inspected the plant before the war said it was part of "an enormous industrial complex" that produces a wide range of substances.

_Fleischer said the president will travel Monday to Northern Ireland for discussions with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, their second meeting since the start of the war. It will focus on the war's progress, humanitarian and reconstruction efforts and the role of the United Nations, he said.

_A soldier from the Army's V Corps was killed by friendly fire after being mistaken for an enemy soldier as he investigated a destroyed Iraqi tank.

_Some U.S. soldiers collapsed from heat exhaustion as the temperature rose to about 90 degrees—more than 100 degrees inside tanks and armored personnel carriers.

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(Brown is with the 3rd Infantry Division near Baghdad; Tamayo is with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq; Merzer anchored from Washington. Also contributing were Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Diego Ibarguen at the White House; Tom Infield at the Pentagon; Mark Johnson with the 82nd Airborne Division; Tom Lasseter with the 101st Airborne; and Peter Smolowitz at allied headquarters in Qatar.)

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

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