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Iraq Journals

Glimpses of life in a war-torn country by GNS national security correspondent John Yaukey and photo director Jeff Franko.


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Wednesday, March 26

Saddam still controls much of crumbling regime

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - With U.S. troops approaching the southern reaches of Baghdad, there can be little doubt that Saddam Hussein is anything but a doomed man.

And yet despite his potentially frail condition, he continues to wield considerable influence and authority over his crumbling regime and terrified population, confounding U.S. war planners and changing their strategies.

Saddam's more than two decades of ruthless rule have left Iraqi citizens too fearful to rebel against the quintessential survivor. His hand-picked special forces and militia groups continue to fight coalition forces with resolve despite the overwhelming superiority they face.

Unexpected resistance in southern Iraq by Saddam's loyal Fedayeen Saddam militia has prompted some U.S. forces to slow their advance on Baghdad in favor of security and mop-up operations.

The Fedayeen militia, possibly 60,000-men strong, also has succeeded in suppressing rebellion among Iraqis to the extent that Pentagon officials are not encouraging it.

``Fedayeen Saddam people are putting a gun to the Iraqi people's heads,'' Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said. ``Unless you're ready to deal with that, then I am very reluctant to run around the world encouraging people to rise up.''

In the build-up to the war, leading Bush administration officials were optimistic that U.S. forces would be celebrated as liberators as they advanced through southern Iraq and on to Baghdad.

At the same time, the war plan called for quickly breaking the Iraqi resolve to fight with a `'shock and awe'' campaign designed to keep Iraqi casualties to a minimum.

So far, both have proven to be miscalculations, some experts and Pentagon officials concede, largely because of Saddam's mythic identity among Iraqis as a survivor and his reputation for pitiless revenge.

"Until many Iraqis have some kind of proof that Saddam is finished, until they see him captured, there is going to be a lot of reluctance to rebel,'' said Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. ``The lack of enthusiasm we saw in southern Iraq is very telling.''

Saddam's many lives

Saddam is feared as the ``dictator with nine lives'' for good reason: he has survived numerous attempts by the U.S. military to target him, as well as assassination and coups plotted from inside his own regime.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, U.S.-led coalition forces launched 260 air attacks on "leadership" targets including party headquarters, bunkers and military command centers, but still failed to get him.

That same year, Saddam slaughtered thousands of Shiites who rebelled in the south, thinking they had support from the United States and other nations that never materialized.

When Saddam learned of a coup being planned against him by his own military officers in 1995, he had the suspects boiled in acid baths. CIA agents backing that plot were called off at the last minute by the Clinton administration, further discouraging Iraqi rebellion against Saddam.

Pentagon officials acknowledge that the images and memories of those events - and U.S. reluctance to step into them - are still vivid in the minds of Iraqis who might otherwise surrender or fight Saddam.

``The people in Basra, I think, for the most part, would be happy to be done with this regime,'' said Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "But they're not going to do so as long as they think there's a shred of evidence that there's going to be some threat against them.''

Costs of miscalculation

If Pentagon war planners have underestimated Saddam, they have at least managed to keep the cost of their miscalculations to a minimum.

They answer critics who claim Saddam is foiling their war plans with numbers.

As of late Wednesday, fewer than two dozen Americans had been killed in combat.

``I certainly deplore any casualties,'' said retired Air Force Gen. Thomas McInerney. ``But if you look at the numbers here, these casualties have been extremely small.''

On Tuesday, forces from the 3rd Infantry, 7th Calvary killed at least 150 Iraqis and destroyed 35 vehicles without losing a single soldier.

Despite blinding sandstorms and unanticipated resistance in southern Iraq, coalition forces were within 50 miles of Baghdad on Wednesday.

``On the ground, our forces have moved 200-plus miles into Iraq in less than five days of the ground campaign,'' Myers said. ``We are now poised for the next objectives and our plan is on track.''

That entails taking on Saddam's Republican Guard units, 60,000 elite troops he has culled from his regular forces for their tenacity.

If the guardsmen remain loyal to Saddam, the battle for Baghdad could produce possibly thousands of U.S. casualties and tens of thousands of civilian deaths.

So far, the Republican Guard remains firmly under Saddam's control.