The Iraqi capital Baghdad was plunged into darkness for the first time, and coalition forces had reportedly captured at least part of its airport late Thursday, just hours after the U.S.-led war passed its two-week mark.

In the last 36 hours U.S. soldiers and Marines have punched through Iraqi defenses surrounding Baghdad with surprising ease. On Wednesday, Brig. Gen. Vince Brooks announced the Baghdad Division of the well-trained Republican Guard as “destroyed,” and military officials followed up Thursday by saying the Medina Division was down to 20 percent capacity and busloads of soldiers, mostly Iraqi regulars, were surrendering.

But both Brooks, at Combined Forces headquarters outside Doha, Qatar, and Pentagon officials in Washington warned strongly against too much optimism.

“Things are progressing well. But I’d like to caution all that there still is much more work to be done. And there’s no doubt that some of it’s going to be very, very difficult,” said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“Let there be no doubt the most dangerous fighting may well be ahead of us,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at the same afternoon Pentagon briefing. But he noted troops have “now arrived near the regime’s doorstep” and are closer to the center of the city than many American suburban commuters are to theirs.

Journalists embedded with U.S. forces reported troops had taken over at least some sections of Baghdad’s airport, which lies across a swath of desert about 12 miles (20 kilometers) southwest of the sprawling capital’s center. Inside Baghdad, Western journalists described a mixture of disbelief and fear among residents, who have been consistently assured by Iraqi officials that Iraqi forces were pummeling U.S. troops more than 100 miles (150 kilometers) away and that victory was near.

The loss of electricity and confusion about its source — Iraqi officials blamed U.S. strikes, while Myers denied any targeting of Baghdad’s power grid — has left residents puzzled and nervous.

The two key concerns among U.S. military planners: that Republican Guard and other diehard supporters of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein may regroup for street fighting in Baghdad, and that the regime will use chemical weapons as a last-ditch defense. U.S. and British troops advancing northward from Kuwait over the past two weeks found suits to protect Iraqi soldiers from chemical weapons but no actual weapons themselves.

United Press International reporter Richard Tomkins, traveling with the 5th Marines, reported that army communications intercepted early Thursday from the Tigris River area had a senior Iraqi commander advising his subordinates they had permission to use chemical weapons.

The next 24 to 48 hours are likely to indicate how coalition forces intend to handle the capture of Baghdad, military experts said Thursday.

Coalition officials in the region prefer to copy the “softly-softly” British tactics in Basra, UPI has learned. The British have now spent 12 days running a gentle siege that never sealed off Iraq’s second largest city, allows civilians and food to come and go (after being searched), and worked to restore water and power supplies. At the same time, with raids and targeted air and artillery strikes, the British picked away at the command posts and headquarters of the Baath Party, the Fedayeen and the remaining military forces inside the city.

The alternative to the British method is for a full-scale assault on Baghdad “on the run,” as the Marines and 3rd Infantry use the momentum of the stunning advances in the past 48 hours and take advantage of Iraqi disorganization. This option is apparently being urged by Pentagon officials.

The decision, which must be taken soon, may hinge on the intelligence estimates of the power structure inside Baghdad. If Saddam and his general staff remain alive and in command of their defenses, a full-scale assault could be slow, bloody and costly in civilian casualties.

Reports of casualties among Iraqi civilians have continued to mount. As on two other days this week, official Iraqi outlets said dozens were killed by explosions in a Baghdad suburb, this one near the airport, but the reports could not be independently confirmed. Baghdad has claimed nearly 700 civilians have been killed throughout Iraq by coalition bombs and missiles since the start of the war in the early hours of March 20.

As in the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi officials have been silent about military casualties.

On the American side, a Navy spokesman said Thursday that a coalition plane, a Navy F/A-18C Hornet, had been shot down by the U.S. Patriot anti-missile system. A search was on for the pilot.

The Pentagon Thursday also announced two more U.S. deaths associated with the war, bringing the total to 51. Marine Sgt. Brian D. McGinnis, 23, died March 30 in a UH-1N Huey helicopter crash in southern Iraq and Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph B. Maglione died Wednesday from what officials described as a “non-combat weapons discharge” in Kuwait.

President George W. Bush was met with rousing cheers from Marines Thursday at Camp Lejeune, however. He praised the service members at the North Carolina base for their sprint across the Iraqi desert from Kuwait and told them: “A vise is closing and the days of a brutal regime are coming to an end.”

On the diplomatic front, European ministers greeted with cautious enthusiasm remarks made by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in Brussels.

Powell, in Europe for the first time since the start of the military campaign to disarm the Baghdad regime, said he was pleased there was a “receptive attitude” to Washington’s proposal to boost NATO’s presence in Iraq.

“The important thing is that no one raised any objection to that possibility,” said Powell after a day of meetings with European Union and NATO foreign ministers at the alliance’s Brussels headquarters.

NATO officials went further, saying most of the bloc’s 19 members backed a muscular role for the alliance in Iraq. One told UPI anonymously: “The tide is flowing strongly in favor of intervention.”

Powell also assured his European colleagues, “There’ll definitely be a United Nations role.” EU foreign ministers told Powell that the United Nations should be in charge of the post-war reconstruction effort and warned Washington that finance ministers would be reluctant to open their purse strings without a new U.N. resolution.

At the United Nations itself, Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette told the Security Council Thursday that the port city of Umm Qasr in southern Iraq was ready for shipments of humanitarian aid. After visiting the previously embattled port a U.N. security assessment mission recommended U.N. staff be authorized to start operations, she said.

The news was greeted with relief within the Bush administration, which is banking on such aid to demonstrate with alacrity how much better is life without Saddam.

Not all was smooth Thursday in Washington, however. A group of Republican senators expressed frustration at elements of the Bush administration they said are trying to play favorites among Iraqi opposition groups who may have a role in governing post-war Iraq.

“There has been a constant battle over how and who the U.S. should support in terms of possible post-Saddam leaders,” said Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. “Unfortunately, this issue has clouded our ability to agree on something basic: those who oppose Saddam with us should be empowered at this critical time to make a difference with their countrymen.”

Bush is scheduled to meet with some 100 members of the Iraqi opposition and Iraqi Americans Friday at the White House.

The State Department was also disturbed by intelligence reports that suggest Iran’s senior leadership plans to send irregular paramilitary units across their border with Iraq to harass American soldiers once Saddam regime falls, UPI learned Thursday.

The March 24 spot report from a U.S. intelligence agency suggests the failure — Tehran’s statements to the contrary — of U.S. and British diplomatic efforts in the last three months to convince Iran to remain neutral in the current conflict.

“This confirmed all of our suspicions that the Iranians are not our friends and not for peace in the region. They are in fact for a piece of the region,” one U.S. intelligence official told UPI. This official said the units would target the Iraqi cities of al-Najaf and Karbala, the two places in Iraq considered holiest by the country’s Shiite Muslim majority. But also targeted would be Baghdad, where several hundred thousand Iraqi Shiites live in the suburb known as Saddam City, as well as Basra and the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk.

”’Reported by Martin Walker in Camp Doha, Kuwait; Richard Tomkins with the 5th Marines; Ghassan al-Kadi in Baghdad, Iraq; Mark Benjamin on Capitol Hill; Pamela Hess at the Pentagon; William M. Reilly at the United Nations; Gareth Harding in Brussels, and Eli J. Lake at the State Department.”’

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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