Washington, 31 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld found himself on the defensive yesterday, denying two separate media reports that cast his decision making on Iraq in a critical light.
News agencies quote some U.S. officers and troops in central Iraq as saying that ground advances toward the capital could be delayed for several weeks while they await the arrival of reinforcements to protect overstretched supply lines from the south and for air attacks to soften stiff Iraqi resistance.
At the same time, reports in "The New Yorker" magazine and other U.S. media are largely blaming Rumsfeld for those problems, saying he rejected advice from top Pentagon planners that many more ground troops and armor would be needed to fight the war in Iraq.
Rumsfeld, appearing on American television yesterday, rejected both reports. He told ABC that the U.S. has no "plans for pauses or cease-fires or anything." And as for the charges that he disregarded advice from war planners about needing a larger number of land forces, Rumsfeld told Fox News: "The plan is a good one, and I would be happy to take credit for it, because it's an outstanding plan and it's going to work and we're going to win. But the reality is that it's a plan that was developed by General [Tommy] Franks and was worked through the [Joint] Chiefs of Staff in Washington. It was looked at carefully by the combatant commanders around the world, it's been through the National Security Council and it is our country's plan. And it's a good one and it's working."
Rumsfeld added that he did not know how long the war would take -- weeks or months -- and that the toughest fighting is still to come.
Franks, speaking to reporters at his base in Qatar, also rejected reports of a pause in the advance on Baghdad. He said that the war would pursue its "remarkable" progress and that an additional 100,000 troops currently on their way to Kuwait were part of an original plan that stresses flexibility.
"A large and capable ground force has attacked to within 60 miles [100 kilometers] of Baghdad on multiple fronts and they currently maintain readiness levels of their combat systems of above 90 percent mission-capable. As we speak, elements of that ground force are continuing the attack. The regime is in trouble and they know it," Franks said.
Reports say the U.S. defense secretary, in developing a war plan for Iraq, rejected the advice of top officers that he deploy a larger fighting force -- closer in size to the half-million troops used in the 1991 Gulf War.
Rumsfeld favored a far smaller force, and analysts say he and Franks eventually compromised, deploying an initial force about half the size of the 1991 one.
In his two years in office, Rumsfeld has also antagonized many top military officers, who have criticized his vision of a sleeker, high-tech military. Retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, who led an infantry division in the Gulf in 1991, told Reuters on 30 March, "At the end of the day the question arises: Why would you do this operation with inadequate power?"
Robert Hutchinson is a founder of and spokesman for the British journal "Jane's Defense Weekly." Hutchinson told RFE/RL that he thinks it's clear that military plans are now being revised to meet the actual reality on the ground in Iraq. "It's risky, but unfortunately, I guess the war will have to be rethought. The idea of minimum force, the idea of low numbers of troops may have to be reconsidered. To avoid some kind of costly urban fighting [in Baghdad], they're going to have to produce some levels of massive firepower to take out those Republican Guard positions," Hutchinson said.
On the front, U.S. and British forces pressed ahead. Coalition forces today kept up their barrage of Baghdad, with agencies reporting a series of explosions in the city center. The U.S. military said the strikes were aimed at Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's palaces, intelligence and information facilities, and paramilitary sites. More blasts were also heard in the southern outskirts, where members of Iraqi's elite Republican Guard are believed to be.
In the north, reports said blasts could be heard near the city of Kirkuk.
RFE/RL's correspondent in Iraq, Ron Synovitz, also reports that U.S. troops appear to be maintaining their advance on Baghdad. He said U.S. forces launched overnight air and artillery strikes on Republican Guard positions near the city of Karbala, some 80 kilometers south of the Iraqi capital.
"The U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division has advanced further north in Iraq today, moving combat teams to positions around the outskirts of the city of Karbala. The advance follows two days of intensive air strikes against armored units of Iraq's Republican Guard that have been moved to Karbala from Baghdad during the past week," Synovitz reported.
Further south, U.S. forces also say they have finally encircled the city of Najaf, where fierce fighting has raged for days.
An Iraqi suicide attack in Najaf on 29 March killed four U.S. troops. The 101st Airborne Division surrounded the city yesterday and secured an airfield after heavy combat. The division now appears poised to enter the holy Shi'ite city and begin rooting out paramilitary forces that have waged stiff resistance for days, U.S. military leaders said.
In Nasiriyah, another scene of fierce fighting over the past week, a Marine raid secured buildings held by the Iraqi 11th Infantry Division that contained large caches of chemical-decontamination equipment, arms, and ammunition.
The U.S. Central Command reported that in one building, they found more than 300 chemical suits and gas masks, atropine injectors, two chemical-decontamination vehicles, and other decontamination devices.
In another, they found more than 800 rocket-propelled grenades, mines, hundreds of mortar and artillery rounds, and thousands of rifle rounds.
Near the southern city of Basra, British Royal Marines said that they had captured an Iraqi general and killed another senior officer in clashes with Iraqi paramilitaries.
Iraqi officials denied those claims. They also said that thousands of people from around the Arab world have volunteered to come to Iraq to launch suicide bombings against coalition forces.