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Friday, April 4

Infantry forces wage fierce battle at airport

By Sean D. Naylor | Army Times

WEST OF BAGHDAD, Iraq - In some of the fiercest tank-on-tank fighting the 3rd Infantry Division has seen in this war, a cavalry troop destroyed part of a Republican Guard battalion late Friday, flanking the forces assaulting Saddam Hussein International Airport.

A Troop, or Apache Troop, of 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment destroyed 12 tanks, three anti-aircraft guns and one towed howitzer in a fight that began about 6 p.m. in Iraq, or 9 a.m. Eastern time.

No Americans were killed or wounded in the battle, which took place along a highway leading into Baghdad, and followed a firefight earlier Friday during which Apache troop destroyed nine tanks and killed about 350 Iraqi infantrymen.

Also killed in the afternoon fight were a woman and a small child whose car came speeding down the freeway into the midst of the battle. Many Iraqi troops have been showing up to do battle in private cars.

Lt. Col. Terry Ferrell, the squadron commander, said that the troop had probably run into elements of Iraq's Hammurabi Division as they shifted south into positions west of the airport.

The cavalry was covering the west flank of other infantry units storming the facility, which they seized Friday and renamed Baghdad International Airport.

``They pushed up the attack and said we're going for the airport,'' USA TODAY photographer Jack Gruber said in a telephone call from the airport battlefield. The scene along the way, he said, was ``pretty amazing.

``Coming on toward the airport, they encountered lots of people in these small villages ... I'm riding in the back of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle right now, and out the little porthole you can see people waving and cheering.''

Gruber said U.S. forces broke down a large retaining wall to get into the airport, and will hold onto their prize.

``I'm sure it's going to become a major stopping point'' for U.S. military aircraft, he said.

Back with Apache Troop, commander Capt. H. Clay Lyle had moved his tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles towards a position that the Air Force said the Iraqis were occupying on the north side of a freeway.

After jets and artillery had worked over the area, Lyle's force drove up to get a closer look. But as they drove down the freeway, they spotted more than a dozen armored vehicles dug in behind revetments on the south of the road.

From 800 to 1,000 yards away, the cavalry opened fire with their Abrams tanks' 120 mm main guns. From less than half a mile away, the fight appeared to be almost completely one way. The yellow flashes of Lyle's tanks firing were quickly followed by orange fireballs as the high explosive rounds hit home.

``We've taken a little bit of fire but most of it's just dying,'' Lyle reported over the radio.

The Iraqi tanks tried to offer resistance, and one of their rounds exploded 25 meters from Lyle's tank, shaking it.

The Iraqis also succeeded in firing rocket-propelled grenades and a few artillery shells at the U.S. vehicles, but none inflicted any casualties. As dusk approached, Lyle pulled back to allow U.S. artillery and close air support jets to attack the Iraqi positions.

During the first engagement, Bradley main gunfire accounted for five of the nine destroyed Iraqi tanks, which were driving down the freeway when Apache troop attacked, Lyle said.

The other vehicles destroyed included an armored personnel carrier and 43 civilian-style trucks and cars that were being used to transport fighters to the battle.

The troop also had fought a running battle with light infantry militia and suicide bombers through the night and into Friday morning.

The cavalry soldiers shot and killed the drivers of several vehicles that approached them at high speed and refused to stop. When they searched the vehicles, they found that they were often manned by uniformed soldiers carrying large sums of cash.

But there were also some unpleasant surprises. Lying beside one car that had been shot up were the corpses of a mother and her child.

Ferrell said it was a tragedy that two civilians were killed, but that he could not afford to let his soldiers take the risk of not firing at a vehicle approaching at high speed. He noted that 3rd Infantry Division had already lost four soldiers to a suicide bomber.

Three suspected suicide bus missions were attempted against Apache during the night. In two cases, the troops fired on the buses, which blew up with such force that the U.S. troops surmised that there must have been explosives on board. Beside the bus lay the charred but clearly uniformed bodies of two Iraqis.

The crew of the third bus apparently had second thoughts about the plan, and fled before the cavalry soldiers could fire on it.

After the battle, hulks of Iraqi trucks and combat vehicles burned on the road. The freeway was littered with spent casings of 25 mm, .50 cal and 7.62 coaxial machine gun ammo.