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Pentagon Defends War’s Progress

Times Staff Writers

U.S. and British troops now control more than one-third of Iraq and nearly all of its airspace, senior defense officials said Friday, bristling at suggestions that the war against Saddam Hussein hasn’t gone as expected, even as they acknowledged that difficult days lie ahead.

“That real estate will end up being occupied by the coalition forces,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld insisted at a Pentagon news briefing.

Early today, a suicide bomber struck when a car was stopped at a desert checkpoint manned by the Army’s 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division near the Karala Gap north of Najaf, and military officials said all four occupants of the car were killed. Associated Press quoted Capt. Andrew Wallace in the Iraqi desert as saying that five members of the brigade died in the attack, but headquarters would not immediately confirm that report.

As fighting continued across a swath of Iraq and an explosion in Baghdad left more than 50 civilians dead, Rumsfeld and his top generals said they were pleased with the war’s progress and denied that they were caught off guard by stiff resistance. Rumsfeld also issued a blunt warning to two of Iraq’s neighbors, Syria and Iran, to stay out of the conflict.

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Skirmishes flared around strategic cities south of Baghdad as U.S. forces prepared for an assault on Republican Guard units arrayed outside the capital and enormous convoys of bumper-to-bumper armor waited to press northward despite persistent shortages of food and supplies. Apache helicopter gunships attacked Republican Guard units near Karbala in the first major action by the 101st Airborne Division during the war.

“The conventional battle, if you like, with the Republican Guard is not too far away,” Gen. Michael Jackson, head of the British army, said in London.

There were reports that Iraqi paramilitary units were firing artillery at civilians trying to flee Basra, the country’s second-largest city. Refugees from the southern city said Fedayeen Saddam paramilitary units were terrorizing people in an effort to make them fight for Hussein’s regime.

A British officer outside Basra, Capt. Richard Coates of the 1st Fusiliers Battle Group, said that, contrary to widespread reports, his unit had seen little evidence of a reported uprising in Basra by anti-Hussein civilians. At most, he said, there have been 40 or 50 people on street corners, “about what you see in London when the pubs close.”

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The first shipload of humanitarian aid was unloaded at the southern port of Umm al Qasr after U.S., Australian and British minesweepers finished clearing Iraqi mines from a channel leading into the harbor. The British supply ship Sir Galahad came laden with more than 200 tons of food, water, blankets, medical supplies and other aid deemed vital in the effort to persuade Iraqis that the U.S.-led forces are there to help them.

Farther north, four U.S. Marines were reported missing following another day of intense firefights in Nasiriyah, and combat continued at Najaf and Diwaniyah, where Marines called in airstrikes by Cobra helicopter gunships.

And in northern Iraq, newly arrived U.S. paratroopers mounted joint operations with Kurdish fighters, and U.S. Special Forces helped the Kurds defeat a group of Islamic militants that the U.S. says has links to Al Qaeda.

The Pentagon announced the death of a Marine who was killed Wednesday in a vehicular accident in Iraq. The British Defense Ministry said one British soldier was killed and four were wounded Friday when their armored vehicle came under attack near Basra. Britain’s Press Association news agency said the five may have been the victims of “friendly fire” from an American plane.

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An explosion shook Kuwait City early today after an Iraqi missile reportedly whistled over downtown and landed in the Persian Gulf nearby. Most of the damage occurred at a seaside shopping mall, where windows were blown out and chunks of plaster fell. Two minor injuries were reported. Nearly a dozen missiles have been fired at Kuwait since the war began. Most have been intercepted and destroyed by Patriot missile batteries and, until today, no one had been hurt.

In Baghdad, it was not clear whether U.S. strikes were responsible for the large number of civilian casualties at markets in Baghdad on Wednesday and again Friday. Iraq said that 15 civilians died in the first strike and that at least 50 were killed Friday. U.S officials have said they are investigating the strikes but say it will probably be impossible to reach any conclusions before they have an opportunity to see the sites firsthand.

The explosion at the market Friday occurred on a day of steady but intermittent bombing in Baghdad. Earlier, U.S. and British aircraft struck at several telephone exchange buildings and government palaces in an apparent attempt to cut communications between Baghdad and Iraqi military commanders in the field.

U.S. Central Command officers said B-52s dropped two 4,500-pound “bunker buster” bombs on Baghdad for the first time Thursday. For top U.S. and British brass in Washington, London and the Persian Gulf, one of the day’s most significant battles was for public opinion as they reacted to published remarks by the U.S. general in charge of land operations in Iraq.

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On Thursday, Army Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace had told some reporters that overextended supply lines and a combative foe employing unconventional tactics had slowed the U.S. drive toward Baghdad and were likely to lengthen the war.

“The enemy we’re fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against, because of these paramilitary forces,” Wallace was quoted as saying. “We knew they were here, but we did not know how they would fight.”

Wallace’s remarks were made following days of rising concern among military analysts and some troops in the field about the unexpected ferocity of Iraqi resistance. Soldiers who had been led to expect cheering crowds of “liberated” Iraqis have instead been confronted by strong pockets of resistance, apparently led by the Fedayeen Saddam -- ultra-loyal paramilitary units sent to motivate or coerce regular troops into fighting.

At the Pentagon, where officials have begun to refer to the Fedayeen as “death squads,” Rumsfeld and Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stressed that any war is inherently unpredictable, but that this one is going well for the United States and its partners.

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“No plan, no matter how perfect, survives first contact with the enemy,” Myers said. “But the plan is sound, it’s being executed, and it’s on track.

“As we’ve said before, we’re going to be engaging in a difficult fight ahead, but the outcome is certain.”

Rumsfeld said any analysis that suggested the U.S. and British forces were failing in their effort to capture public support in Iraq would be woefully premature.

“We’re one week into this, and it seems to me it’s a bit early for history to be written,” he said.

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In strongly worded remarks, Rumsfeld charged that Syria was allowing shipments of military supplies, including night-vision goggles, to cross its border into Iraq.

“We consider such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian government accountable,” he said. Syrian officials denied the accusation, which the Foreign Ministry characterized as an attempt to divert attention from “ugly war crimes against unarmed civilians in Iraq.”

Rumsfeld also issued a warning to Iran after saying that some members of an Iranian military unit had crossed, or intended to cross, into Iraq. While Iran is a traditional foe of Hussein’s, Rumsfeld said the presence of its units would be “unhelpful.”

The defense secretary spoke at length about the Iraqi paramilitary fighters. He calculated that there are anywhere from 5,000 to 25,000 of them in the country.

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“These death squads report to the Hussein family directly,” he said. “Their ranks are populated with criminals released from Iraqi prisons. They dress in civilian clothes and operate from private homes.... They conduct sadistic executions on sidewalks and public squares, cutting the tongues out of those accused of disloyalty and beheading people with swords.”

While some have referred to the Fedayeen as a guerrilla force, Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, a spokesman for the Central Command in Doha, Qatar, said that was not accurate. “If you’re talking about classic guerrilla warfare, it generally requires a force that is accepted in and amongst its population,” he said. “And we are not seeing that in this case.”

Late Friday, there were reports that a pair of U.S. F-15E jet fighters had destroyed a two-story building in Basra where some 200 paramilitary members were believed to be meeting. There was no way to immediately determine the number of casualties.

Before leaving for Camp David for the weekend, President Bush said U.S.-led forces were “making great progress.” Addressing representatives of veterans service organizations at the White House, he also said Hussein’s regime was now in control of only “a small portion of that country.”

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In his briefing at the Pentagon, Gen. Myers was more precise, telling reporters that Hussein had lost control of 35% to 40% of the country and 95% of its airspace. He said Iraqi air defenses were still causing concern to allied pilots in and around Baghdad.

U.S. and British fighter jets, combat helicopters, stealth and long-range bombers flew more than 1,500 sorties over Iraq on Friday, 700 of them to deliver bombs or missiles and the majority in support of ground troops. Air Force officials said the air campaign was shifting from a focus on fixed targets to one of supporting allied ground forces.

Meanwhile, it was revealed Friday that a U.S. Marine commando unit failed earlier this week in a daring attempt to free several American prisoners of war.

Marines on Wednesday stormed a hospital in Nasiriyah, scene of fierce fighting between U.S. forces and Iraqi paramilitaries, on intelligence that two or more captured GIs were being held there, said Brig. Gen. John Kelly, assistant commander of the 1st Marine Division.

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“For a while there, we felt pretty good” at the prospect of rescuing Americans, Kelly said.

But when the Marines arrived, they found that the prisoners had been moved, Kelly said. A doctor bearing a white flag emerged and informed the Marines they had missed by just a couple of hours.

Officials at Central Command said the Marines found weapons and suits at the hospital that were designed for use against chemical weapons. At the Pentagon, Myers said similar chemical protection suits were found at a headquarters of the ruling Baath Party in Nasiriyah.

The battle at Nasiriyah, a town of open-air markets where paramilitary snipers often shoot from the roofs of residential buildings, is a fight to secure the road, critical to keeping supply lines open to forces as they advance north toward Baghdad.

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Kelly said the Marines’ struggle with the paramilitaries has been complicated by the groups’ tendency to use so-called human shields. Fighters, usually young men in civilian attire, take buses along with women, children and elderly men, he said. In some spots, young men have been forced to stand on the street as paramilitary fighters prepare to begin firing on passing convoys. In a potential setback to the U.S. campaign Friday, Turkey closed its airspace to cruise missiles after one misfired from a U.S. warship in the Mediterranean and landed in a field in southeastern Turkey, far short of its target in Iraq. It was the third errant missile to fall in Turkey’s Urfa province in the week since the government authorized overflights of U.S. missiles and aircraft.

None of the missiles exploded, but all three have caused panic among villagers.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Toll on the battlefield

Casualties

Military totals (as of 6:30 p.m. Pacific time Friday)

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U.S Britain Iraq Killed 28 23 Unknown

Missing 20 0 Unknown

Captured 7 0 4,500

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Civilian casualties

* Iraq has claimed that more than 500 noncombatants were killed. One Australian and one British journalist also have died.

On the Web

Go to www.latimes.com throughout the day for updated stories, photos and video reports from Times correspondents in Iraq and the surrounding region.

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Schrader reported from Washington and Perry with the 1st Marine Division near Nasiriyah. Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson in Doha; Mark Magnier with the 1st Fusiliers in Basra; Jeffrey Fleishman in northern Iraq; David Zucchino with the 101st Airborne Division; David Wharton in Kuwait City; Edwin Chen and Maura Reynolds in Washington; Richard Boudreaux in Ankara, Turkey; and Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.


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