The View From CENTCOM

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“Hi guys!,” said the U.S. general as he entered a room full of reporters for the first background briefing by a senior officer at CENTCOM HQ in Doha. He asked if there were any Arab media in the room. (Al Jazzera was not there).

In a refreshing change, he said he did not have any statement, and just wanted to answer our questions. The first asked about the plan and the timing of the war. The senior CENTCOM officer said pressure was being applied to the regime in a variety of ways. He singled out special operations in both north and western Iraq as having been highly successful and said that the triangle of Tikrit, Baghdad and Ar Ramadi (what he called "the center of the regime") would get serious additional pressure in the near future.

He said he had seen "significant weakening" of attacks, presumably by Republican Guard and feddayen, along supply routes. "They're weakening every day," he said, and added hat intercepts show a weakening in the Republican Guard. "I'm not going to claim victory tomorrow, but there is weakening."

The senior officer also noted that Republican Guard units were moving south, perhaps because "things are getting bad in the south for them and they need to stiffen their defense." He said the local population was very near a "tipping point" toward the coalition in both Basra and Nasiriya. In Najaf, he said locals were helping coalition forces route out the paramilitaries and that locals were even physically attacking regime supporters.

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The senior officer seemed to go a little bit off message on whether the U.S. needs Saddam dead or alive. (Briefers here have repeatedly said "this isn’t about one man") He said, "The average Iraqi only knows Saddam. He's survived everything. He's won the lottery every time. He's a huge symbol for these people. He's everything. Unless we take him out, the population can't be confident."

According to the senior officer, an example of Saddam's desperation came today with the 3 rd ID at a bridge near Najaf when Republican Guard forces — he said he believed they were from the Nebuchadezzer Division — put women and children out in front of them and were shooting at U.S. forces from behind the cover of the civilians. When one woman tried to move aside, she was shot in the back and fell into the river (a U.S. solider apparently rescued her). "The regime has inflicted more casualties on its own people in the last couple days than any errant bombs of ours."

Going forward, this officer warned against traditional ideas of how the battle may progress. "If you’re looking for a big, World War II-like push to Baghdad, I'm not sure you'll see it. This plan is about pressure and nuance and subtle pressure." He also said Karbala would get a "a lot of action" in the very near future.

In terms of capabilities, the regime has its up and downs. This officer mentioned one clever thing that Saddam had done to harden his communications system. "He buried fiber optic cables, which made it much more difficult for us to disrupt the system. But now we're getting to those," he said.

When asked why the regime hadn't yet shattered, he admitted it was a good question. In part, he said, "Americans in particular have a hard time I think fully comprehending a totalitarian regime that terrorizes its own people and has established a system on control that recalls the Nazis and Stalinist Russia. It is hard for us to understand that a general like myself would be out in the field commanding an army because my family was being held hostage and threatened with death. All of it — human shields, execution squads — we have a very hard time understanding that. There are a number of people who have everything to lose of this regime goes. That goes a long way to understanding the resiliency of the regime."

But he also admitted that the huge propaganda effort that has included tens of millions of leaflets and constant radio barrages has not been as successful as the coalition would have liked. And though he admitted that POWs and locals had not made reference in interviews by coalition forces to the West's abandonment of the anti-Saddam forces in 1991, this senior officer, who was in Northern Iraq in 1991, thinks it has played a huge role in keeping the population from quickly supporting the coalition. "What we didn't do is coming back to haunt us," he said bluntly.

The hunt for WMD goes on, but he says the priority at this time is the military campaign. But he did say "there are ominous signs on the battlefield" that regime has plans to use bio/chem. weapons. "Our forces continue to find chemical protection suits, gas masks and atropine. And we've found a lot more than we’re comfortable with."