In an attempt to put a quick end to the war, the United States is negotiating intensively with senior Iraqi military commanders using third-country intelligence connections, Iraqi defectors and even straightforward telephone appeals from American officers, according to U.S. and Iraqi opposition officials.
The aim is to persuade the Iraqi military to stage a coup against President Saddam Hussein or surrender en masse.
"We're trying to get the message across that it's time to give up," said a senior State Department official. "We do that with whatever means and using every possible channel available to us."
Friday's punishing airstrikes, which had been set to begin earlier, were delayed in order to give talks with senior commanders of Hussein's Republican Guard a chance, a senior Bush administration official said.
"We were off the game plan and purposely going slow," said a well-placed administration source who requested anonymity.
Many of the discussions going on now are the result of three months of communications -- through e-mails, radio broadcasts and leaflets -- that began to bear fruit when U.S. intelligence intercepted telephone conversations among senior Iraqi officers indicating that the inner core of military support around Hussein was starting to crumble, officials said.
Those who defect are promised that they will have a future in a new Iraq.
"They've been offered assurances that if they behave the right way, or if they undertake acts to ensure there are no hostilities, they will be remembered warmly," said the administration official. "They've had months to think about this, and now, when they're forced to confront the choice, some people are poised to act."
The psychological warfare produced one significant defection Friday. The Iraqi army's 51st Mechanized Division, 8,000 soldiers based around the major oil-shipment hub of Basra in southern Iraq, surrendered to coalition forces. The 51st had been one of the better-equipped army divisions, with about 200 tanks.
An official at U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, said an estimated 20% of the Republican Guard, Iraq's best-armed and best-trained troops who are considered most loyal to Hussein, either have defected or plan to defect in the coming days.
The official said the estimate was based on conversations between U.S. and British forces and selected guard commanders, some of whom are being offered a role in rebuilding the country.
U.S. intelligence officials said Friday that there is now a high volume of back-channel communications with officials inside Iraq. American military officers are trying, often by telephone, to coax their Iraqi counterparts into surrendering, said another U.S. official familiar with the intelligence.
The approaches tend to follow a common script, the official said. Typically, a U.S. officer, speaking through a translator, will appeal to a counterpart's pride: "You're a professional soldier like I am. We don't want to engage your forces and cause needless loss of life."
Other contacts are being made by Iraqi opposition officials and diplomatic channels, according to the State Department.
The effort has increased since the war began.
"If you're asking, is there contact between coalition forces and Iraqi forces, the answer is most certainly," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters Friday. "There has been over the past period of weeks, and those discussions have intensified."
"There are a number of channels open to Baghdad," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said. "There are a number of individuals in countries around the world who have been conveying the message to the Iraqi regime that it is now inevitable that there will be a change."
Foreign intelligence services, possibly including Jordanian and Saudi operatives, also are engaged in contacting Iraqi officials, U.S. officials say.
"Coalition forces are doing very well," Powell said. "The operation is going, I think, in a very fine manner. And in order to prevent any loss of life beyond that which may have occurred already, it would be wise for Iraqi leaders to recognize that their day is over and that this is going to happen."
The face-to-face talks that led to a delay of the airstrikes were conducted between Iraqi military officers and what was described by the senior administration official as "assets" run by U.S. intelligence and special forces operating out of northern Iraq -- presumably Iraqis working with the United States.
The talks were inconclusive, leaving the Bush administration with the question of whether to proceed with the intensified air campaign that was launched Friday against Baghdad and other targets.
"If they had succeeded, what to do next would have been an easy choice," the well-placed administration official said. "If they had failed, it would have been an easy choice.
"But they were inconclusive, so we had to make a tough choice: Did we give them another 24 hours or remind them that time was running out?
"The consensus was to turn the switch back on. We'll be in Baghdad in a couple days and can either drive in or punch our way in, and they can decide which," the official said. "The thinking was: We've played the bad cop throughout. Why change now? Besides, this could accelerate their interest."
Gregory Urwin, a military specialist at Temple University in Philadelphia, said U.S. forces were trying to avoid heavy casualties among Iraqi ground troops.
"We're trying to give them a chance to surrender," he said. "We're trying to do it without killing a lot of Iraqis because that would play well with the Arab street."
Urwin added that U.S. strategists were seeking a breakthrough with elements of Hussein's inner circle.
"We're still hoping for a political solution," he said, "hoping the Iraqis will cry 'Uncle' and send Hussein into exile or stage a coup. We'll have to see if it works."
Lines of communication are still open in the event the Republican Guard commanders can either organize a coup against Hussein or orchestrate a mass surrender of Iraqi military units nationwide.
"The effort is not dead. It could still work," the senior administration official said.
Opposition Kurds in northern Iraq also are playing an important role in establishing contacts. Their military leaders who were previously in the Iraqi armed forces have reached out to officers with whom they once served.
And tribal chiefs have made contact with men from their tribes in the military, a prominent Kurdish official said Friday.
"The contacts have been quite diversified, and they have increased in amazing ways in the past few weeks," the official said. "A lot of signals are now being sent back and forth, and we're getting a clear picture of ministries in disarray and officers more and more worried about their futures."
Times staff writers Greg Miller, John Hendren and Richard T. Cooper in Washington contributed to this report.