American forces accused of dodging battle

They `stop and swerve' but will pay in blood for Baghdad, says Iraq official

War in Iraq

March 24, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq's defense minister said yesterday that American forces driving north toward Baghdad had engaged in a pattern of "stops and swerves" around Iraqi defenses in cities and towns along the way, but that eventually they would have to "pay a heavy price in blood" by fighting for Baghdad if they wanted to topple Saddam Hussein.

The warning by Gen. Sultan Hashim, delivered at an evening news conference, came only hours before a new intensification of U.S. bombing and missile attacks on the Iraq capital.

After a mostly quiet period in central Baghdad since the ferocious aerial bombardment Friday night, a volley of cruise missiles began slamming into key government and military buildings on both sides of the Tigris River in the early hours today.

As the war entered its fifth day, the weekend's events appeared to have moved it much closer to its climactic phase, the battle for Baghdad.

Military briefing

With some American advance units nearing the city of Najaf, less than 100 miles south of Baghdad, tensions in the Iraqi leadership appeared to be rising, along with vows to meet the American troops with fierce resistance.

Hashim outlined the Iraqi strategy for countering the Americans in what amounted to a lengthy military briefing. With an officer holding a pointer against a large military map at the news conference in Baghdad's Sheraton Hotel, the general said Iraqi forces had held their own in virtually every battle with the Americans so far.

The American advances, he said, were taking place largely because U.S. commanders had chosen not to fight for control of cities and towns such as Basra, An Nasiriyah and Al Samawah in the lower Euphrates River valley on their drive north from Kuwait, but to outflank them and leave battle-worthy Iraqi units behind them.

This strategy, Hashim implied, was only putting off the moment when American troops would have to fight Iraqi forces for control of the principal population centers and, above all, Baghdad.

On a day when American forces suffered their worst casualties so far in fighting in the southern city of An Nasiriyah, the general asserted that "the enemy, every time he has been surprised by our resistance, stops and swerves."

`City will fight them'

Then he added a mocking choice for American commanders as they confront the last part of their drive to the capital, beyond Najaf to Baghdad.

"Perhaps they can go on to northern Iraq," he said. "They can even go on to Europe. But in the end, to achieve their objective, they will have to come to the city. And the city will fight them. They say a land fights with its own people."

The new cruise missile attacks on Baghdad were nowhere near the intensity of the Friday strikes, when hundreds of cruise missiles hit in and near Baghdad, along with heavy bombing, devastating many of the palaces and other buildings that have been symbolic of Hussein's rule.

But the missiles that began striking at central Baghdad again early today, at intervals of a few minutes, sent shock waves for miles, and clouds of dust and smoke could be seen rising from some of the targets.

One missile hit a building with a gigantic explosion only a few hundred yards from the Palestine Hotel on the east bank of the Tigris, where about 150 foreign journalists are staying.

From a hotel balcony, the target appeared to have been in the vicinity of the Iraqi air defense headquarters, which appeared to have been heavily damaged but not destroyed in the Friday attacks.

Since the Friday attacks, the air raid sirens and intense Iraqi anti-aircraft fire that met each new wave of American aircraft have been sharply diminished, to the point that there was virtually no ground-to-air fire visible by last night.

Meanwhile, for hours during the day yesterday, thousands of excited Iraqis gathered on an embankment along the Tigris River in the heart of Baghdad, and on a bridge above, to cheer on soldiers.

The Iraqi troops were hunting, or so the word went, for an American or British pilot said to have parachuted from his stricken plane high above the city and dropped into the river's murky waters.

For the crowds, the hunt was something to distract from the tension of waiting for more bombs and missiles or for U.S. troops to arrive at Baghdad.

Whether there ever was a stricken plane, or any fugitive pilot, was unresolved well into the night, when soldiers with rifles were still firing into the riverbank bulrushes and setting them afire, and powerboats with divers were still cruising the river, searchlights scanning for the pilot.

By then, some Iraqis had concluded that it might all be a case of hyperactive imaginations, or perhaps a mild form of the hysteria sometimes brought on by war.

U.S. officials reiterated yesterday that they had lost no planes or pilots over Baghdad, and Iraqi defense minister Hashim evaded questions about other official claims that as many as five coalition aircraft had been shot down. He stayed silent, too, on the question of the hunt along the river. "When we have any information to give you, we will tell you," he said.

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