Army forces launched a nighttime attack on Saddam International Airport just outside Baghdad yesterday and fought running battles with Iraqis along the city’s southern fringes. “A vise is closing on the regime,” President Bush told cheering Marines stateside.

Shabina Khatri
(AP PHOTO/San Antonio Express-News, Bahram Mark Sobhani)
Third Infantry Divison ground forces secure a gated area at Saddam International Airport outside of Baghdad early this morning.

Some front-line units went on heightened alert against the threat of chemical weapons, ordered to wear rubber boots and suits despite temperatures that soared into the ’90s.

There was fierce fighting in Kut, to the south of Baghdad, where desperate Iraqis armed with rifles charged tanks in a suicide raid. “We mowed down” the attackers, said Lt. Col. B.P. McCoy.

Despite declarations that further tough fighting lies ahead, the nation’s top military official indicated there may not be an all-out battle for Baghdad. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested isolating members of the old regime in the capital – cut off from the rest of the country – while an “interim administration” is put in place to begin work on a postwar government.

A meeting to organize an interim government could be held in Iraq within a week, a senior Pentagon official said last night.

For the first time in the war, large parts of Baghdad lost electricity. The cause was not known. Myers told reporters at a Pentagon briefing that Americans had not targeted the power grid.

Tracer rounds lit the night sky and artillery boomed near the airport a few miles from the heart of Saddam Hussein’s capital. Army units encountered little resistance along the airport road, their convoy passing dead Iraqi soldiers and piles of discarded military uniforms.

At one stage, it appeared that U.S. forces had taken control of the airport “and then it got more confusing,” with continued fighting, Myers said last night. Capture of the airport would give American and British troops a facility for airlifting equipment and troops to Baghdad.

Along the city’s southern edge, Army tanks and Bradley vehicles destroyed at least seven Iraqi armored personnel carriers and more than 15 Iraqi tanks in fighting that went on for more than four hours.

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