How US forces captured Saddam International Airport

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BAGHDAD AIRPORT – 'We are on an offensive-oriented mission. Our job is to

 

destroy the enemy. We defend the airfield by destroying the enemy around

 

us,' explained Lt. Col. Scott Rutter, commander of the 2-7 Mechanized

 

Infantry Battalion, at a command briefing to his officers Saturday

 

afternoon.

 

The 2-7 Battalion, together with the 3-69 Battalion from the 3rd Infantry

 

Division First Brigade, took over Saddam Hussein International Airport on

 

the western edge of Baghdad late Thursday night.

 

The airport is surrounded on all side by sites of vital importance to the

 

Iraqi regime. These include Special Republican Guard headquarters, barracks,

 

and bases, two presidential palaces, one of which is Saddam's official

 

residence. There are also two suspected chemical and biological warfare

 

plants located in close proximity to the airport.

 

While 3-69 took over the main terminal building, the 2-7 Battalion is

 

stationed at the entrance to the airport complex on Highway 8 connecting

 

Baghdad to the airport.

 

'We are blocking potential enemy reinforcements along Highway 8 from the

 

city of Baghdad. This protects friendly forces securing Baghdad

 

International Airport. It is a major enemy avenue of approach in their bid

 

to kill soldiers and interdict operations,' said Maj. Kevin Cooney, the 2-7

 

Executive Officer.

 

Friday morning, while forces stationed in the terminal met with light

 

pockets of resistance from Special Republican Guard forces still within the

 

airport complex, the 2-7 Battalion was barraged by enemy fire.

 

From 7:30 to 11:30, Iraqi forces attacked the battalion with tanks, mortars,

 

artillery, RPGs, and light arms fire, most of this emanating from a

 

presidential palace 500m away from battalion headquarters.

 

The Iraqis also attempted to attack the battalion with an explosives-laden

 

fire truck that was destroyed by an M- 1A-1 Abrams tank round. During Friday

 

morning's fight, soldiers destroyed three Iraqi T-72 tanks with shoulder-

 

launched Javelin anti-tank missiles.

 

The Iraqis ambushed the battalion engineering company that was securing a

 

POW collection point 500m from headquarters. One soldier was killed and six

 

were wounded by shrapnel. The wounded were medevaced to an army surgical

 

hospital in the rear.

 

At the same time, the 2-7 Alpha Company conducted room-to-room

 

search-and-destroy missions in a nearby Special Republican Guard compound.

 

 

The complex had already been bombed in air force operations Thursday night.

 

However, the soldiers, led by Rob Smith, engaged pockets of resistance still

 

holed up in the rubble. 'Most of the soldiers we saw were eager to

 

surrender,' Smith said.

 

In all, on Friday the battalion destroyed six tanks and eight armored

 

personnel carriers and killed five Iraqi snipers.

 

According to intelligence officer Derek Smits, 'From the accounts we

 

received from the soldiers after the shooting ended, the Iraqis were trying

 

to fight their way out of the airport and the presidential palace and escape

 

to Baghdad. The troops saw them attempting to blast through a wall to escape

 

the palace,' he said.

 

Iraqi Radio reported Friday morning that thousands of civilians would march

 

to retake the airport at 15:00. The US forces began precision aerial bombing

 

a Republican Guard camp at 14:30. 'Note the timing of the bombing,' Rutter

 

remarked; 15:00 passed with no Iraqi attempt by civilians nor military to

 

retake the airport.

 

Learning from the previous day's experience, the battalion beefed up its

 

offensive operations on Saturday, taking positions inside Special Republican

 

Guard headquarters and directly outside a presidential palace.

 

'Yesterday the Iraqis attacked us in an effort to put us on the defensive.

 

They tried to dislodge us from a blocking position on the highway, but it

 

did not work. By nightfall their attacks ended. Our one offensive yesterday,

 

which met with minimal contact from the enemy, was sufficient to stop their

 

operations,' said Rutter.

 

The ground troops have found that even after air force bombing reduced Iraqi

 

complexes to rubble, Iraqi forces often remain or attempt to return.

 

Infantry offensives are necessary to flush out these structures and occupy

 

them.

 

'We don't want to repeat the mistakes made in Vietnam when US forces took

 

terrain and then left – only to be attacked again from the same locations.

 

The infantry is the only branch of the military that can both seize and hold

 

terrain,' said Cooney.

 

As the battalion's Alpha Company used TOW anti-tank missiles to destroy two

 

Iraqi T-72 tanks and kill 10 Iraqi infantrymen still within the already

 

bombed-out presidential palace, Bravo tank company patrolled a bombed- out

 

Republican Guard training camp. There, evidence of precision Air Force

 

bombing from the previous night was clearly at hand. Buildings reduced to

 

smoldering gray brick rubble abutted others left largely unscathed. From one

 

such building, an Iraqi sniper shot at M-1A-1 Abrams tanks.

 

Rather than send in forces to find him, company commander Capt. Jimmy Lee

 

destroyed the building with high explosive charges. The sniper appeared

 

shortly thereafter. As he lay on the ground, he held up a press card and

 

claimed to be a journalist stuck at the compound.

 

 

'The guys asked me what to do,' Rutter, who was with Bravo tank company, said. 'I told them to handcuff him because he was just shooting at us.'

Earlier in the day, Iraqi television reported that US forces had not entered

 

Baghdad and that the Iraqi army had retaken the airport. This was

 

interesting news for soldiers, particularly from the 101st Airborne

 

Division's 3-187 Battalion that entered the terminal buildings on

 

search-and-destroy missions Saturday morning. Their initial search of the

 

VIP terminal turned up, 'gold, china, jewels, and other expensive items

 

hidden at the site,' said Maj. Rod Coffey, the 2-7's Operations Officer.

 

As the sun began to set Saturday evening, with black smoke billowing out

 

over an expanse of several hundred meters from the Special Republican

 

Guard's base, 2-7 soldiers took a sanguine view of their experience as the

 

most combat-tested battalion thus far in Iraq.

 

 

'Here we are at what two days ago was Saddam Hussein International Airport. We completed our mission to date and are thinking about our next one,' said Staff Sergeant Patrick

 

Taylor.

As he watched an Abrams tank tow a track from a disabled 1-33 armored

 

vehicle, Master Sgt. Timothy Cabell put things in perspective. 'We were able

 

to do something that many armies have tried in the past to do but failed. We

 

made it here to the airport at night through the maze of streets of the

 

towns along the Euphrates River. Thank God for our technology. Without our

 

night-vision, our GPS, and our troop grid tracking systems, I don't know how

 

we would have done it.'

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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