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Iraq: U.S. Forces Consolidating Around Baghdad

Washington, 5 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. military says its forces have now effectively taken control the southern and western outskirts of Baghdad and its airport. The Iraqi government says the allied troops will be defeated by what it calls a "creative" defensive strategy.

Reports from around the Iraqi capital say thousands of civilians have been fleeing the city. They are said to be moving north to avoid the Americans, clogging roads with their cars filled with their possessions.

Yesterday, U.S. Army forces finally took control of Saddam International Airport, about 20 kilometers southwest of the capital, and promptly renamed it Baghdad International Airport. Some Iraqi resistance reportedly persisted after the facility was captured. Meanwhile, a U.S. Marine unit moved toward Baghdad from the southeast through Kut, also meeting some Iraqi resistance. They also are said to have accepted the surrender of about 2,500 Republican Guard members.

U.S. Major General Stanley McChrystal, vice director of operations for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Army and Marine advances, supported by air strikes, have virtually neutralized Iraq's southern defenses of Baghdad.

McChrystal said the protective ring around the capital once consisted of six Republican Guard divisions. Now two, he said, have been virtually eliminated, and added: "We believe that, overall, each of those remaining four divisions has been significantly attrited to this point, significantly degraded. I won't put a number on it, but those remaining four are nothing like what they started."

Iraq's information minister, Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf, told reporters in Baghdad yesterday that the Anglo-American coalition would be defeated through what he called "very new, creative" operations. He said they would include "martyrdom" attacks. He said they would not include the use of chemical or biological weapons.

The United States has warned that Iraq might resort to such weapons, but none has been used in the war so far. At yesterday's Pentagon briefing, McChrystal was asked why. He said coalition forces have wasted no time in destroying Iraqi arms that can deliver such toxins, including missiles and artillery.

Iraqi television, meanwhile, broadcast what it said was Hussein reading a brief speech. In it, he encouraged his army to keep fighting and said the people of Baghdad would overcome invading forces in the end.

"You beloved ones, the people of Baghdad and the people of Iraq, the vanguard of victory, with God's help, you will be victorious and they will be, by the will of God, defeated and damned."

The tape referred to the downing of an American helicopter on 23 March. If the person shown in the broadcast was actually Hussein, it shows he was probably alive after the attack on an Iraqi leadership compound near Baghdad on 20 March (Iraqi time), which started the war.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was asked yesterday whether the U.S. government believes that the person shown on Iraqi television was indeed Hussein. Fleischer replied that the person's identity is irrelevant: "In the bigger scheme of things it really doesn't matter, because whether it is him [Saddam] or whether it isn't him, the regime's days are numbered and are coming to an end."

What will follow Hussein in Iraq remains an important issue.

Yesterday, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Russia met in Paris to discuss postwar reconstruction of Iraq. At the United Nations, the three countries had pressed for further weapons inspections in Iraq instead of war.

Now they are mounting a diplomatic initiative to ensure that the UN plays the dominant role in postwar Iraq. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said it is the only organization that can "legitimize" the work that will need to be done in the country once the fighting stops.

The Paris meeting was held a day after ministers of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization gathered in Brussels for consultations on Iraq's reconstruction. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell attended.

Back in Washington yesterday, Powell said no final decision had been made on the UN's role at the Brussels meeting. But he stressed that all the ministers agreed such a role will exist: "We're at the beginning of a process of dialogue, pragmatic dialogue, to determine what the appropriate role of the UN should be. The UN will be a partner in all of this. Everyone understands that, there's no disagreement about that."

Powell did not elaborate, but Fleischer outlined how U.S. President George W. Bush envisions the UN role in postwar Iraq.

"The United Nations, in the [U.S.] president's judgment, should and will have a role. The role of the UN will be involved in humanitarian efforts, the role will be involved in help on the reconstruction efforts, but principally, the future of Iraq is for the Iraqis to decide. The United States, of course, is on the ground providing security, and that's an important part of this, but there will be a role for the UN."

Powell has argued that the coalition partners have been paying the political, economic, and human cost of waging the war, and therefore should have a central role in reconstruction.