- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2003

BAGHDAD — The Baghdad airport used by President Bush yesterday for a surprise two-hour Thanksgiving visit to the troops was the scene of a missile strike just five days before, which closed it to all commercial civilian traffic.

The persistent threat from surface-to-air missiles, thousands of which are thought to be in the hands of anti-U.S. guerrillas, forced the president to make his visit in utmost secrecy.

No news of the U.S. commander in chief’s presence here was released until Air Force One was safely back in the air.

An Airbus A-300 freighter belonging to German-owned courier DHL was forced to make an emergency landing Saturday after it was struck by a shoulder-fired, Russian-made SA-14 missile in the first successful hit of the seven-month-old anti-U.S. insurgency here. There were no casualties.

Spectacular footage of the missile being fired by nearly a dozen masked militants from scrubland just south of the airport were caught on a video taken by journalists of the French magazine Paris Match, as well as by the militants.

Eight previous attempts had been made to hit planes with missiles, all against official or military aircraft of the coalition. At least one confirmed hit was made on a U.S. military helicopter near Fallujah, west of Baghdad, which killed 17 soldiers aboard.

All planes using the Baghdad airport are required to corkscrew down to the runway from high altitude in a nauseating security precaution.

Tens of thousands of surface-to-air missiles were bought by Saddam Hussein’s regime, many of which fell into civilian hands after the collapse of his armed forces during the U.S.-led spring invasion.

The coalition set up a buyback program in an attempt to get the weapons off the streets, but acknowledges that thousands probably remain in the hands of foes.

The shoulder-launched weapons are ideal for the insurgents because they can be fired by one person. The most dangerous is the SA-14, dubbed Gremlin in NATO parlance, which can hit an approaching jet at 2,200 yards as well as strike a helicopter or propeller-driven aircraft at a larger range.

The persistent threat has prevented the reopening of Baghdad airport to scheduled flights ever since the entry of U.S. troops in April, despite huge initial interest from international carriers.

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