SAS target Saddam
By David Taylor and Patrick Sawer,
Evening Standard - 3 April
SAS men and US special forces hunted for Saddam Hussein and his two sons in daring raids on palaces around the edge of Baghdad and further north today.
News of the operations came as the battle for Baghdad airport began with a series of explosions.
In the search for Saddam, elite troops blasted their way into Thar Thar Palace, described as a "known residence" of the Iraqi dictator and his family. The coalition teams came under fire during the lightning raid after being dropped from a Chinook helicopter.
Using night-vision goggles they stormed through the palace grounds and blew their way into the building using grenades.
Dramatic pictures released by Central Command showed the full-length windows shattered and curtains blowing in the wind as the special forces men ran into the palace.
Within minutes the team rushed back to their helicopter and returned to one of their "forward operating bases" - airfields in Iraqi territory already taken by British and American special forces teams.
No prisoners were taken but a series of documents were snatched which will be analysed by intelligence experts.
Two others palaces near Baghdad airport, the Presidential Palace North and Radwaniyah Palace, are also believed to have been targeted. Thar Thar Palace is about 50 miles north of the city near Saddam's home town of Tikrit.
Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said today: "We were looking for the leaders, they were not there, but we did find a lot of information."
An American captain added: "Special forces were able to go into several important sites, one specifically a palace in the vicinity of Baghdad, where special forces were able to go, go in, take a look and come back out."
In a major development this afternoon, the Shi'ite leader in Najaf urged his people not to hinder US troops in their operations there.
It came as a series of massive explosions marked the opening of the battle for Baghdad airport - Saddam International Airport - 12 miles from the city.
Special forces had already inflitrated some Iraqi command posts in the Baghdad area. They also secured some bridges and dams to forstall possible sabotage.
Elite troops have also blocked the main road from Tikrit on the Tigris to the capital cutting off the Adnan Division which is protecting protect Tikrit.
A mixed force of Kurdish militia and US paratroopers and special forces are poised to attackfrom the north. Ten huge explosions in as many minutes this afternoon marked the beginning of the battle for Baghdad airport. One witness said: "They are using big bombs, they are very powerful."
The attack came after US troops massed near the airport. It was reported that elements of four Republican Guard divisions were advancing towards the airfield.
If they advance across open ground they will be exposed to devastating attack by US rocket artillery, Apache helicopters, A10 tankbuster aircraft, and the AC 130 Spectre gunships loaded with cannon and gatling guns and capable of dropping "daisy cutter" bombs, which clear swathes of ground.
The odds are so stacked against any Iraqi formations now maneouvring in the open, that there is strong speculation among the coalition forces that some Republican Guards could be coming out to surrender.
Other troops of the US 3rd Infantry Division had advanced to six miles of the city, within sight of the capital's skyline.
The Allies met little organised resistance as they swept across the plain towards the Iraqi capital under the protection of artillery and mortar fire. As the 3rd Infantry sped forward one of its Abrams tanks appeared to take a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade fired from irregular forces. Burnt-out Iraqi tanks and armoured cars littered the desert and huge mushroom clouds from the constant bombardment of Iraqi positions could be seen in the distance.
Captain Frank Thorp, at Central Command war headquarters in Qatar, announced: "Coalition forces at this point are outside Baghdad airport and are positioning themselves to engage that fight at a time of our choice."
Iraq's information minister read out a message on state television from Saddam praising his forces in the south-eastern town of Kut where US forces yesterday captured a key bridge.
Reports emerged of two Iraqi attempts to take back a bridge 20 miles from Baghdad. US officials said that 500 Iraqi soldiers had been killed in the battle. If the reports are confirmed, the firefight would be one of the bloodiest clashes of the war.
The push came after an American Black Hawk helicopter came down near Karbala, killing seven soldiers on board.
An American FA18 Hornet fighter plane also came down. In the north, Kurdish fighters were advancing on Mosul, backed by US special forces.
After making striking progress on two key southern fronts yesterday, the US forces advancing along the Euphrates and Tigris valleys slowed slightly overnight. This allowed the vanguard to refuel their vehicles and give troops some rest before the assault on the city's defences.
"You do not want your troops to arrive for the main event completely exhausted and without fuel and supplies," said the official.
The bombing of the capital itself continued with targeted strikes every 10 or 20 minutes, including 40 smart bombs on one military storage facility.
Twelve US rockets streaked northwards across the pre-dawn sky in a barrage which US military officers said was capable of destroying everything within a square kilometre.
The allied assault on the Republican Guard also saw B52s dropping a new type of precision-guided, 1,000lb cluster bomb.
Six CBU-105 bombs were dropped, each releasing 10 armour- destroying " bomblets" which descended by parachute onto an Iraqi tank column.
The great unknown for US forces is just how much of the Republican Guard's fighting capability remains.
Of the six divisions defending the city, the Allies are reported to have all but wiped out the Baghdad Division near Kut to the south-east.