BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – U.S. forces battled the tattered remnants of Iraq’s army for control of downtown Baghdad yesterday, crushing a counterattack and seizing a military airport. Saddam Hussein’s fate was unknown after an attempt to kill him from the air.
Inside the capital to stay, some Army units routed Iraqi fighters from a Republican Guard headquarters. Others discovered a 12-room complex inside a cave, complete with white marble floors, 10-foot ceilings and fluorescent lighting.
Marines battled snipers as they fought deeper into the capital from the east. They seized the Rasheed Airport and captured enough ammunition for an estimated 3,000 troops. Ominously, they also took a prison where they found U.S. Army uniforms and chemical weapons suits possibly belonging to American POWs.
The toll on civilians from four days of urban combat was unknown. But the World Health Organization said Baghdad’s hospitals were running out of supplies to treat the burns, shrapnel wounds and spinal injuries caused by the fighting.
Two cameramen were killed and at least three others wounded when an American tank fired a round into the Palestine Hotel, headquarters for hundreds of journalists. Commanders said hostile fire had been coming from the building, although the journalists said they witnessed none.
Separately, the Arab television network al-Jazeera reported that a U.S. warplane attacked its office on the banks of the Tigris River, killing a reporter.
On the city’s northern side, Army forces set a Republican Guard barracks ablaze. Warplanes flew their bombing runs unchallenged, and smoke poured out of the Ministry of Planning building in the city’s center.
“We are continuing to maintain our ability to conduct operations around and in Baghdad, and remove them from regime control,” said Capt. Frank Thorp, a spokesman at U.S. Central Command.
State-run Iraqi television was knocked off the air, depriving the regime of a key source of influence over a population thought increasingly eager to help the forces of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Four days after Americans first penetrated the Baghdad outskirts, the city showed the effects of the war. Civilians roamed the streets with Kalashnikov rifles in hand, uncollected garbage piled up, and there were long lines at the reduced number of gasoline stations still open.
There were also military losses for the Americans.
An A-10 “Warthog” warplane was shot down near Baghdad early yesterday, possibly the first fixed-wing aircraft downed by an Iraqi surface-to-air missile since the war began. U.S. Central Command said the pilot ejected safely, was recovered by ground forces and was in good condition.
A U.S. F-15E jet fighter also went down Sunday and a search was still under way yesterday for its two-man crew, the military announced. Officials did not say whether the plane was shot down or crashed accidentally.
Outside the capital, U.S. jets bombed Iraqi positions near the northern city of Kirkuk, which remained under control of the regime. In the southeastern city of Amarah, Marines seized the airport and an ammunition dump without resistance.
In Basra, a southern city of 1.3 million people under British control at last, military officials appointed a local sheik as a civilian commander, the first replacement administration put into place anywhere in the country.
Postwar government was a key topic for a summit meeting that brought President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to Northern Ireland. Both men talked of a U.N. role inside Iraq once the fighting is over, and sought to minimize splits on who should govern and rebuild the country.
In the meantime, they trumpeted the battlefield successes of the American and British forces, and said Saddam’s days were numbered.
“I don’t know whether he survived,” a bombing attack on Monday, Bush said of the Iraqi leader. “The only thing I know is that he’s losing power.”
Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations said he believed Saddam had escaped the bombing of a site where he and at least one son were believed to have been meeting on Monday.
There was no direct evidence either way, though.