Iraqi military command still intact

Sunday, March 23, 2003

Iraq's military, in contrast to initial U.S. intelligence assessments, has remained intact and continues to battle allied forces.

U.S. officials said the regime of President Saddam Hussein has managed to maintain its defenses, particularly in the Baghdad area, despite heavy allied air strikes. The officials said Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries are performing better than expected against U.S. and British fighter-jets over the Iraqi capital, Middle East Newsline reported.

Still, Iraqi resistance has not stopped allied ground forces from moving north toward Baghdad, officials said. They said U.S. ground troops have crossed the Euphrates and headed toward the Iraqi capital.

On Sunday, U.S. aircraft launched a massive bombing of Tikrit, the stronghold of Saddam. Officials said Saddam appears to have survived a U.S. missile attack on his palace on Wednesday. Saddam has since appeared on television, but officials said they were not live appearances.

"A campaign on harsh terrain in a vast country could be longer and more difficult than some have predicted," President George Bush said on Saturday.

Iraq has maintained the support of the bulk of its army and no more than 2,000 Iraqi soldiers have surrendered, officials said. They said the most lethal element of the Iraqi military six divisions of the Republican Guard remain around Baghdad. U.S. forces are said to be about 150 kilometers away from Baghdad.

"We've still got significant Iraqi forces in front of us," Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director for operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a briefing at the Defense Department. "They may fight, they may not. If they fight, there could be a tough battle to be taken."

Officials said the allies have intensified attacks throughout Iraq. They said the United States fired more than 500 cruise missiles toward targets in Baghdad during a 24-hour period over the weekend. About 2,000 missiles have been fired at Iraqi targets throughout the country.

Heavy Iraqi resistance continues around the southern city of Basra as well as Umm Qasr, which had been reported as captured. Officials said the U.S. military has refrained from entering Basra, a city of three million people.

Iraq, despite confusion in the command and control structure, has also been moving its surface-to-surface missiles along the approaches to Baghdad in an effort to halt the advance of allied forces. Officials said the speed and organization of the Iraqi effort have been impressive.

"The CIA's assessment of the tape is that it does appear to be the voice of Saddam Hussein," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "But there is no conclusive evidence about whether it was taped before or after operations began. It would not be surprising if he did make videos ahead of time."

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said the United States has been in contact with the Iraqi leadership. Ms. Clarke said the Iraqi leadership is being urged to end the war and save lives.

"I'm not going to characterize individual conversations, but discussions are ongoing," Ms. Clarke said. "And there is still an opportunity for some people to do the right thing."

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