Iraqi officials maintain defiant front

Despite U.S. advances, enemy leaders assert American forces `crushed'

War in Iraq


BAGHDAD, Iraq - Senior Iraqi officials remained defiant yesterday in the face of American military might, asserting that Iraqi soldiers and suicide bombers had "crushed" American troops at Baghdad's international airport and broken the American advance on the capital into isolated pockets that were surrendering to relentless Iraqi attacks.

On a day when American commanders sent advance units probing within miles of central Baghdad, the official Iraqi response was mocking and triumphalist, much as it has been throughout the 17 days of war.

To Westerners here who have kept abreast of the military situation by satellite telephone links to the outside world, the situation appeared to confirm, ever more strongly, that the rigidities of the system built by Saddam Hussein have become a debilitating handicap to Iraq's ability to confront American power. After years of unquestioning fealty, senior Iraqi officials seemed unwilling to provide any interpretation of military events that might prejudice Hussein's claim to invincibility.

Nothing seemed to demonstrate this more clearly than the events that shook central Baghdad yesterday morning. Not long after dawn, Iraqis venturing into southwestern Baghdad toward the international airport returned to the east side of the Tigris River to report having seen American tanks in neighborhoods just four or five miles from the palaces and ministries in the city center that have been the most visible symbols of Hussein's dominance. They began speaking as if the day might end with the government's collapse and the Stars and Stripes flying over the capital.

By sunset, the mood of anticipation - or alarm, depending on the Iraqis involved - had subsided. It became clear that the probing advances by the American forces had been, mostly, just that - thrusts into the city, as an American military spokesman at the Central Command headquarters in Qatar said, intended to shake Iraqi confidence without yet making a challenge for outright control.

But if this was the American strategy, it was far removed from the Iraqi construction of the day's realities. Information Minister Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf made his regular daily foray to the Palestine Hotel to put things into perspective, Iraqi style. His main point was that the American capture of the airport Friday had been reversed by an Iraqi counterattack using regular units and "a very innovative way of war" involving suicide bombers.

The Iraqi strategy, Sahhaf said, was to drive the Americans back to pockets of resistance outside Baghdad. One place mentioned was Abu Ghraib, a town about 15 miles west of the capital, notorious as the site of the grimmest prison in Hussein's gulag.

Travelers reaching Baghdad in recent days described American troops with tanks at checkpoints on the expressway that passes Abu Ghraib on the way to Jordan. But Sahhaf said that the American units there, and at two other locations he named as Hadithi and Qadisiya, were surrounded by Iraqi troops.

"We nailed them down," he said.

These expressions of bravado appeared to have been reinforced by film shown on television Friday and again yesterday of a man identified as Hussein visiting neighborhoods in western Baghdad and being greeted with jubilation by Iraqis. Iraqis who saw the broadcast said they had no doubt that the man was Hussein and not a double.

While questions lingered, including when the video was made, the effect on Hussein's most zealous loyalists was beyond doubt. At the Palestine Hotel, the mood among Iraqi officials brightened.

For two weeks, they had pointed to the nightly television broadcasts of Hussein meeting senior officials as proof that he was in command. But perhaps they, like officials in Washington, had begun to doubt whether these scenes were new or recycled.

Now, with the Iraqi leader's appearance on the streets, they seemed to rediscover the confidence shaken when the war began March 20 with a cruise missile strike aimed at a meeting in Baghdad of senior officials who, the Pentagon said, might have included Hussein.

Oddly, the political flourish involved in the Iraqi leader's televised walkabout was followed yesterday by a reversion to one of the expedients of the past two weeks that had led American intelligence analysts - and many Iraqis - to conclude that Hussein might have been killed or incapacitated by the missile strike. Yesterday afternoon, Sahhaf was back on television reading a message to the Iraqi people from Hussein, without any explanation as to why the leader could not have delivered the message.

Twice yesterday, the Information Ministry took reporters on a tour of the city's western districts where the American thrusts had been reported around dawn. The Iraqis seemed particularly keen to show that the district of Yarmouk, about five miles from the airport, remained under Iraqi control. Reporters who saw the Yarmouk hospital yesterday afternoon reported no sign of American troops, or of any battle in the area.

But there were other signs that something had happened in the area and that the Iraqis were not eager for it to be known. An American photographer who reached the hospital yesterday morning described large numbers of Iraqi casualties arriving on stretchers at the emergency department. When the busload of reporters arrived hours later, they were told that the visit to the hospital was canceled, without explanation.

Just about everywhere, families were busy loading up cars with possessions, mostly food and clothing. But the question on almost every Iraqi's lips when meeting Westerners was the one that nobody could answer: How long before the Americans push into the city to stay? How long before this war, with its declared objective of toppling Hussein, will be over?

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