OUTSIDE BAGHDAD — A giant C-130 transport landed at the Baghdad airport Sunday, the first known U.S. plane to arrive in the Iraqi capital since the airfield fell into U.S. hands.
Meanwhile, troops of the 101st Airborne Division exchanged gun and artillery fire with Iraqi forces probing the airport’s 13-square-mile perimeter. No U.S. forces were hurt, but a dozen Iraqis were believed killed, said Maj. David Beachman, a battalion operations officer.
The airport, captured in an all-night battle last week, is expected to be a major resupply base for American forces and a key to channeling aid to Iraqi civilians. It offers critical landing strips that will let the military hopscotch over the 350-mile supply line that now stretches from the capital to U.S. bases in Kuwait.
It is also just 10 miles west of central Baghdad, adjacent to the Radwaniyah presidential residence.
Navy Lt. Mark Kitchens, a Central Command spokesman, confirmed the C-130 had landed but gave no details.
Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf has insisted Iraqi forces recaptured the airport. U.S. forces say they have effective control over the airfield, despite sporadic attacks like the one Sunday.
Troops of the 101st fortified their position at the sprawling airport Sunday, digging trenches and bulldozing sand berms. Two weapons caches — including one with 12 crates of shoulder-fired missiles — were found just outside the airport grounds. Troops also found 35 French-made Roland surface-to-air missiles in the airport complex.
18 Kurds killed in friendly fire
U.S. warplanes struck a convoy of allied Kurdish fighters and U.S. Special Forces during a northern battle Sunday in one of the deadliest friendly fire attacks of the war. At least 18 people were killed and more than 45 wounded, including senior Kurdish commanders, Kurdish officials said.
U.S. Central Command said its “early casualty reports” on what appeared to be the same incident gave lower figures: one civilian killed and six people injured, including a U.S. soldier. But the command said the investigation was not complete.
The incident also showed the heightened intensity of combat along the northern front, where joint U.S.-Kurdish ground offensives backed by air power have been battling Iraqi forces.
“There is more tension as this front becomes more active in order to put more pressure on the Iraqi side,” said Hoshyar Zebari, a senior member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party leadership.
Zebari said the “tragic” bombing along battle lines southeast of Irbil killed at least 17 Kurdish fighters and a translator for the British Broadcasting Corp., which was following the convoy. The injured was a roster of some of the KDP’s top military officials.
Zebari said the mistaken bombing could have been caused over a confusing and changing battle scene between Pir Dawad and Dibagah, 25 miles southwest of Irbil.
Kurdish and U.S. forces called for close air support after a column of Iraqi tanks tried to turn back advancing coalition soldiers. The convoy was near disabled Iraqi tanks when it was struck, he said.
The warplanes may have “mistaken some of the tanks that the (Kurdish fighters) had taken with the new column of tanks,” he told reporters. “This was a war situation and these things happen.”
The U.S. statement differed slightly on the location of the incident, placing it 30 miles southeast of Mosul, near Kalak. Kalak is 40 miles northwest of Dibagah.
It was not clear whether the convoy was on the front line of fighting or behind the most forward positions. Hours after the bombing, the Iraqi forces were pushed back at least 200 yards beyond the wreckage.
Driving Iraqi troops from Dibagah would cut off the main road connecting the main northern cities in Baghdad hands: Mosul and the Kirkuk oil center.
At the scene, BBC correspondent John Simpson reported that the convoy contained eight to 10 cars, two of which carried U.S. Special Forces troops. BBC translator Kamaran Abdurazaq Muhamed, who had been working for the corporation since mid-March, died in the bombing from blood loss after losing his legs.
“This is just a scene from hell here,” Simpson said. “All the vehicles are on fire, there are bodies burning all around me, bits of bodies all around. … The Americans saw this convoy and they bombed it. They hit their own people.”
“I saw people burning to death in front of me,” reported Simpson, who suffered minor shrapnel wounds.
Zebari stressed that the incident would not undercut Kurdish military and political backing for the coalition effort to topple Saddam Hussein.
“It will not affect … our resolve to work together,” Zebari said.
Iraqi regime denies losses
Saddam Hussein urged Iraqi troops separated from their combat squads to join other fighters to fend off the Americans, according to a statement read on TV that indicates disarray among the country’s elite fighters.
The appeal came as Baghdad shook from continued allied bombing. At nightfall Sunday, long bursts of heavy machine-gun fire and strong explosions rocked the capital in what appeared to be a battle not far from the city center.
The shriek of surface-to-surface missiles, the pounding of artillery and bursts of what sounded like heavy machine-gun grew in frequency and intensity Sunday evening in the city’s southern approaches.
Just before 9 p.m., loud explosions and gunfire were heard downtown, not far from the Information Ministry and a hotel where many journalists are staying.
Prayers broadcast from Baghdad’s mosques filtered through the din of battle. “God is great and to him we owe thanks,” clerics intoned every time the city came under attack.
Two hours later, Baghdad was quiet, with occasional light weapons and missile fire. Explosions could be heard in the distance.
The statement attributed to Saddam, read on Iraqi television and radio, also said that anyone who destroys an allied tank, armored personnel carrier or artillery would be awarded 15 million dinars, or about $8,000.
Iraqi satellite television showed brief footage of a smiling Saddam in military uniform chairing a meeting it said was held Sunday with his top aides.
Burnt-out Iraqi tanks littered one of the main roads leading to Baghdad on Sunday, one day after American troops muscled through the city. Regime leaders remained defiant and appealed for calm.
A haze hung over the capital. Some of the fires ignited by authorities more than two weeks ago to conceal targets appeared to have fizzled, reducing the gray smoke spiraling into the skies.
The streets crawled with black-clad Fedayeen militia, the armed loyalists of the ruling Baath Party, and teenagers with guns.
Iraqi troops clambered up what they claimed was an allied tank destroyed in a Sunday morning battle. They made V-for-victory signs and chanted slogans in support of Saddam.
The U.S. Central Command said coalition soldiers killed up to 3,000 Iraqi troops in Saturday’s incursion. Iraqi leaders denied heavy casualties and took pains to show they were still in control.
In a statement aired on state-run television, Iraq claimed Sunday its forces had killed 50 enemy troops and wounded scores of others in the previous 24 hours. It also said they had destroyed 27 tanks and damaged 10 others; destroyed 13 armored personnel carriers and shot down two Apache helicopters.
Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf warned Baghdad residents against “rumors” and “lies.”
“Open your eyes and keep your minds alert to be able to differentiate between information and the inadequate ones,” he said in a news briefing Sunday. He urged residents to remain calm and not to fire guns without being told.
The escalation of violence in the capital appeared be taking its toll on residents.
At the al-Kindi hospital in a working-class Baghdad, scores of people with shrapnel wounds have been coming in since Saturday night. Among them were eight members of one family.
In one ward, several children wore bloodstained casts on their legs and arms, and some had difficulty breathing. One girl had bandages over half her face. Most children gazed aimlessly while their parents tried to comfort them.