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Baghdad endgame pits U.S. forces against 'irregulars'
By John Yaukey | GNS
WASHINGTON - The final battle for Baghdad is shaping up as a clash between U.S. forces and Iraqi "irregulars'' - the plainclothes snipers, suicide bombers and street fighters who put up tenacious resistance in southern Iraq.
Pentagon officials said the vast majority of Iraq's elite Republican Guard and conscription army has been smashed by U.S. forces advancing north.
Despite that, U.S. Army and Marine units moving into downtown Baghdad continue to take occasionally heavy fire from small roving groups of Saddam Hussein's loyalists.
In the south, U.S. and British troops were sometimes tied up for days fighting these irregulars and their deadly tactics that include feigning surrender then firing on their captors at close range.
The endgame on Baghdad began taking shape this week as the hit-and-run-strikes U.S. troops used to enter the capital, draw out resistance and then leave became hit-and-stay maneuvers, marking the start of a campaign to occupy key targets.
"The endgame is the end of the regime, and that is much closer than many thought it was,'' Army Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said Tuesday at the Pentagon. "I won't put numbers on it, but we have a significant element in (Baghdad) right now.''
Despite the crumbling organized resistance in Iraq, the occupation of downtown positions could begin the war's most dangerous phase for U.S. forces and Iraqi civilians.
For U.S. troops, who had been fairly secure holding up east and west of the city, occupying Baghdad means taking and defending positions in tight streets where irregulars can potentially get much closer than they could in the open flats outside Baghdad.
Iraqi civilians could now start seeing firefights erupting in their yards and streets.
Pentagon officials say their worst fears - that the remaining irregulars will try to exploit civilians for protection - are being realized as they find weapons caches in schools and mosques.
Most of the occupation objectives in downtown Baghdad so far have been leadership targets, notably two of Saddam's palaces, or were located in industrial areas in southeast Baghdad.
"These are what we call opportunistic targets,'' Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks told reporters in Doha, Qatar. "Some we will simply strike. Others we will take and hold and conduct operations out of.''
U.S. forces apparently are not eager yet to repeat the forays they made into residential areas over the weekend where they were forced to move house-to-house - kicking in doors and terrifying Iraqi civilians - to ferret out roving irregulars apparently sniping from walled-in gardens.
Who are the irregulars?
Iraq's irregulars have been one of the most underestimated forces of the war, and Baghdad could be a last stand for many of them.
Most of the trouble in the southern cities of Umm Qasr, Basra, Nasiriyah and Najaf came from an obscure militia now infamously known as the Fedayeen Saddam. In Baghdad, U.S. Marines and soldiers face potentially hundreds of these expert street fighters pledged to die in suicide attacks.
Other irregulars include:
- Dispersed members of the Special Republican Guard now dressed as civilians. These soldiers were recruited from Saddam's native al-Bu Nasir tribe especially to protect Baghdad and have been trained in urban combat. Most special guard units were broken apart by U.S. forces either moving around Baghdad or during the recent urban combat there. But there still might be significant numbers of guardsmen who are alive, armed and organized enough to fight in small groups.
- Bands of armed civilians left with no choice but to fight. Numbering possibly in the thousands, these ragtag fighters are from Saddam's ruling Baath Party. If the government is toppled, they face either trials as war criminals or almost certain death at the hands of mobs they have tortured and taxed into abject poverty.
- The Al Quds Army. This volunteer civilian group was founded by Saddam in 2000 to fight for the liberation of the Palestinians. They are capable of staging guerrilla attacks and then melting back into Baghdad's neighborhoods.
- Secret police. Before the war, Saddam maintained as many as eight spying and police agencies. As the regime shatters, some might fight as civilians.
Pentagon officials are still not sure how tough these irregulars could get as U.S. forces start occupying more positions in downtown Baghdad.
"They do not appear very coherent at this point,'' said Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. ``That does not mean that there's not tough fighting ahead.''
All but two dozen or so of Iraq's 800 tanks have been destroyed by fighter-bomber attacks or by armored assaults.
But Pentagon officials caution that the remaining irregulars could be heavily armed with shoulder-mounted grenade launchers. These relatively low-tech weapons have the capability to kill troops on foot or in unarmored vehicles or to take down low-flying helicopters.
On Monday, more than 100 Marines came under heavy fire from rocket-propelled grenades as they advanced toward central Baghdad from the southeast.
"Some of the movement we have had in and out of the city has been met with sharp fights,'' McChrystal said.
There also remains the possibility that the Iraqi resistance will use chemical weapons, although that danger appears to be diminishing.
Despite the discovery this week of what could be chemical weapons stored in barrels about 50 miles southwest of Baghdad, U.S. commanders are apparently feeling secure enough to let their soldiers in and near the capital move about without chemical protection suits.
In another positive sign, no chemical weapons were apparently used in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where the Fedayeen militia fought intensely for days against British Marines.