Saddam Airport to be coalition superbase

Iraqi President liked the first-class air hub, complete with its duty-free shops, so much that he named it after himself.

world Updated: Apr 04, 2003 16:28 IST

For the US-led forces on Baghdad's doorstep, Saddam International Airport is potentially a massive military base for bringing in weapons and troops and channelling aid to the Iraqi people.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein liked the first-class air hub, complete with its duty-free shops, so much that he named it after himself.

But on Friday, tanks of the 3rd Infantry Division rumbled through its entrance, past a tall portrait of the saluting Iraqi President. US forces occupied part of the complex and sealed the entrance closest to Baghdad, although it was unclear how much of the airport complex was under US control.

American strategists prize the airport's main runway because it is long enough at 13,000 feetto land the military's largest transport planes as well as civilian jumbo jets. It also has a second 8,000-feetrunway, once used by Iraqi fighter jets, that could help speed the flying in of supplies.

Its crowning appeal is proximity to the Iraqi capital. The airport is about 16 kilometersfrom the heart of Baghdad and is adjacent to the Radwaniyah presidential site, which served as Saddam's main residence.

Flying in troops, armour and humanitarian aid to Saddam International will shave off hours, if not days, from trucking supplies north from other air bases further south.

"This is a very large area immediately adjacent to Baghdad that you can just sort of move into, and American forces could congregate and regroup and gather themselves together and stage from," said John Pike, a military analyst with GlobalSecurity.org.

Following the coalition strategy of leapfrogging supplies to the front lines through captured Iraqi air bases, the first US supply plane landed on Thursday at an airfield six kilometersfrom the southern town of Nasiriyah, where US Marines are still trying to root out resistance.

The Tallil airfield was overrun by the 3rd Infantry Division on March 22. But it took days for US troops to clear away the jumbles of wrecked vehicles and other barriers strewn around the strip by the Iraqi military to prevent its use.

Setting up shop at Saddam International Airport could also take a while -- mostly because the surrounding area is still not under US control. Lumbering C-130 transport planes would make ideal targets for militia fighters or regular Iraqi army troops armed with anti-aircraft missiles.

A military official at US Central Command in Doha said an airfield would be an important asset if coalition forces were assured of its security.

The airport's wide open spaces could make it easier to do just that. Good lines of sight help defend troops camped in the shadows of Baghdad. The open land acts as a buffer between the air base and surrounding buildings where attackers could hide.

The infield provides plenty of room to stockpile supplies, tanks and tents. If the US-led coalition opts to isolate Baghdad instead of storming the capital, a secured Saddam International Airport could prove a crucial staging point for bringing in more supplies and troops as it tries to slowly strangle a bottled-up Saddam regime.

Although Saddam International is the country's largest airport, not a single airplane touched down there for most of the 1990s. A UN Security Council resolution aimed at punishing Iraq for the invasion of Kuwait banned flights to and from Iraq -- making Baghdad one of the few world capitals without regular international air service.

The isolation ended in 2000 with the arrival of dozens of flights from non-governmental organisations and foreign countries seeking an end to the UN sanctions.

But Iraq Airways was still mostly grounded. Its fleet of 15 Boeing airliners was flown out to Jordan, Iran and Tunisia to escape bombing during the 1991 Gulf War and the carrier has had trouble retrieving them.

A new name for the airport seems a certainty if coalition forces prevail. But at least one alternative has already been taken. At the Tallil airfield farther south, a hastily erected sign at that base's entrance reads "Bush International Airport" for President George W. Bush.

First Published: Apr 04, 2003 14:35 IST