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Alternative to battle for Baghdad: Isolate it

[AP photo]
Under heavy fire, U.S. Army engineers cross the Euphrates River to check for explosives on a bridge just south of Baghdad.
©Associated Press
April 4, 2003

WASHINGTON -- American forces might stop short of storming Baghdad and instead isolate it while the makings of a new national government are put in place, President Bush's top military adviser said Thursday.

Separately, a senior Pentagon official said a meeting to start forming an interim Iraqi government could happen within a week inside Iraq. Discussions about forming that interim government continue within the Bush administration, the official told the Associated Press.

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated at a Pentagon news conference that the coming days may bring neither an all-out fight for the city, as many have predicted, nor a conventional siege of the capital.

"When you get to the point where Baghdad is basically isolated, then what is the situation you have in the country?" he said at a Pentagon news conference. "You have a country that Baghdad no longer controls, that whatever's happening inside Baghdad is almost irrelevant compared to what's going on in the rest of the country."

Over time, Saddam Hussein and his inner circle would lose their ability to communicate with Iraq's military forces, already in a state of disarray, and to control water and electricity, Myers said.

"Whatever remnants are left would not be in charge of anything except their own defense," he said.

A senior U.S. official told Knight Ridder that the U.S. plans to establish a civil administration run by retired Gen. Jay Garner as rapidly as possible and will begin delivering relief supplies almost immediately.

In a step toward gaining control of key levers of power, U.S. soldiers attacked Saddam International Airport on the western edge of the capital. Other important targets may be the Rasheed military air base in southeastern Baghdad and bunker complexes known to the U.S. military.

The airport is important because once it's secure it can be used to bring in more troops, military equipment and humanitarian aid. Patriot antimissile batteries would be part of security around the airport.

Although he did not rule out any scenario for Baghdad, Myers' comments strongly suggested that the intention is to bleed Hussein's government of its political and military authority without launching an all-out assault that would risk high casualties.

He did not suggest it would be easy, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, "There likely will be difficult days ahead."

U.S. diplomats were caught off guard by Myers' suggestion that an interim government could begin taking shape while Baghdad is isolated by U.S. troops, perhaps for a lengthy period of time.

One senior official on Bush's foreign policy team, speaking on condition of anonymity, complained that the comments could send a signal that U.S. officials are not confident of their ability to overrun Baghdad.

But another senior official, this one familiar both with Bush's military and diplomatic plans, said Myers' comments reflected White House strategy. It is partly a political and psychological tactic: The United States does not want Hussein to think holding off coalition forces could slow his demise. Sending the message that the government is already irrelevant could help turn Iraqi military and citizens against the leadership, the official said.

Militarily, the second official said that while the bulk of U.S. troops remain outside central Baghdad, Special Forces will be active inside the capital, seeking targets to undermine the leadership and break the will of Iraqi troops to fight.

Rumsfeld, appearing with Myers, said U.S. ground forces led by the Army's 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force had arrived "near the regime's doorstep." He emphatically ruled out any deal that would save Hussein.

"There's not a chance that there's going to be a deal," he said. He denounced those behind any talk of deal making.

"The inevitable effect of it, let there be no doubt, is to give hope and comfort to the Saddam Hussein regime and give them ammunition that they can then try to use to retain the loyalty of their forces with hope that one more time maybe he'll survive," Rumsfeld said.

Myers' remarks were the most expansive explanation of how the Pentagon might avoid urban warfare. He cited several factors that U.S. officials believe will work in their favor. Among them:

About half of the 5-million people in Baghdad are Shiite Muslims, who have been oppressed by Hussein's regime. "You could assume that they might be helpful" to the U.S. cause, he said.

At some point an Iraqi interim administration will take shape, "starting to work the postconflict governance," Myers said.

Even if the government does not collapse or fall victim to a coup, there may be no rush to dispose of it, Myers said. "You'll start working at it as you can. But one of the things you can do is be patient about that."

Myers said allied forces now control about 45 percent of Iraq's territory.

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