New coalition air strategy over Baghdad
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S.-led forces Saturday implemented a new strategy over Baghdad, with aircraft flying constantly over the city to protect ground troops, said Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, in charge of coalition aircraft in Iraq.
The aircraft will fly "urban close air support," as Moseley put it. They will be loaded with munitions to hit Iraqi forces such as the Special Republican Guard, an elite unit guarding President Saddam Hussein, while limiting civilian casualties, Moseley told reporters at the Pentagon.
Airstrikes also will be called against missile and anti-aircraft artillery sites and if ground troops are threatened, U.S. officials said.
A highly placed Defense Department official at an air base near the Iraqi border told CNN at least two planes will be in the air over the Iraqi capital at all times.
When coalition ground forces need help, the planes -- acting as dispatchers -- will summon at least six warplanes to provide support, the official said. The warplanes will include A-10s and F-16s.
The skies of Baghdad will not be empty again until the war is over, the official said.
This new element of the air campaign began as a formation of Army troops with Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles swept through the southwestern edge of the city.
Pentagon officials described the mission as the first of many designed to send a message to the residents of Baghdad that Saddam's regime is no longer in charge.
In addition, U.S. troops are gathering intelligence on the way residents react to their presence and on possible locations of resistance.
This is "the Baghdad portion" of the war plan, as one Pentagon official phrased it.
Elements of the 3rd Infantry Division will continue to probe from their position at Baghdad's airport. They have been reinforced with elements of the 101st Airborne Division. Probes from the eastern flank will come from elements of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
Saturday's probe came from the south and turned west along Hillah Road toward the airport.
Additional U.S. forces took control of a major highway intersection south of the city, an effort to control access in and out of the capital as part of the broader strategy of isolating the regime in Baghdad, officials said.
The "close air support" will involve dozens of fighters, bombers and support airplanes over Baghdad, Pentagon officials said. Forward airborne air controllers are to communicate possible targets to the planes.
Moseley said Baghdad's air defenses had been seriously degraded by attacks in recent days, but that threats still exist to coalition aircraft.
The coalition's new aerial effort may look different from the air bombardment of Baghdad going on for two weeks.
"The trick is to use ... the smallest munition possible to get the maximum effect so that you don't create the unnecessary loss of civilian life or property," Moseley said.
He emphasized that strikes will be called in if U.S. troops in the city are threatened or come under attack.
Moseley suggested one technique may be to use 500-pound laser-guided bombs without explosive warheads, with the intent of destroying the target without causing civilian damage.
Predator and Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles are patrolling the Baghdad metropolitan region looking for leadership targets and conducting reconnaissance.
Moseley acknowledged that Iraq's state-run television continues to broadcast because its transmitters are in civilian areas of the city and are difficult to target.
He said the coalition was willing to accept its intermittent transmission rather than risk civilian casualties.
CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr contributed to this report.