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U.S. Probing Forces Move Closer to Baghdad

U.S. Probing Forces Move Closer to Baghdad

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- American units began probing attacks in a rim around the southern outskirts of Baghdad in another effort to pave the way for the battle for the capital, defense officials said Monday.

A week of heavy bombing has left some of Iraq's Republican Guard units surrounding Baghdad at less than half strength, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday. And U.S. Army troops spearheading the drive to Baghdad on Monday fought their way into Hindiya, about 50 miles from the capital, capturing dozens of members of Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard.

Other Army and Marine units were sent closer to Baghdad on probing missions to assess Iraqi troop strength and cut Iraqi forces off where they can, two Defense Department officials said Monday.

Some have crossed over into the so-called "red zone," one official said. The Pentagon has said that as invading forces moved into the area, cornered Iraqi forces could decide to attack with chemical weapons.

Meanwhile, as criticism continued to swirl around a war plan some say underestimated Iraqi resistance and the necessary U.S. troop strength, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was meeting Monday with President Bush. It was not a convening of national security advisers, but the long-standing weekly one-on-one meeting between the president and defense secretary.

Intense bombing continued on Monday. Over the weekend, Pentagon officials said that U.S. troops were prepared for a major attack against Saddam's Guard forces, but the heaviest attack may have to await pressure to build on the Iraqi leader.

"Their fighting capability is going down minute by minute, hour by hour. There's not going to be much left to fight with," Myers said Sunday.

"We have the power to be patient in this, and we're not going to do anything before we're ready," he said. "We'll just continue to draw the noose tighter and tighter."

Nevertheless, Myers and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, making the rounds of the Sunday television talk shows in Washington, predicted an assault on Baghdad could be brutal.

"It's going to get more difficult as we move closer to Baghdad," Rumsfeld said. "I would suspect that the most dangerous and difficult days are still ahead of us."

Rumsfeld and Myers said coalition ground forces were closing in on Baghdad from the south, west and north.

The majority of more than 2,000 weekend airstrikes were focused on three Republican Guard divisions around Baghdad: The Hammurabi, to the north, west and south; the Medina, to the south; and the Baghdad, centered southwest of the capital around Kut.

The military also was tracking five Guard brigades, including two infantry, seen on the move last week. It was not exactly clear how they were repositioning themselves, though some Iraqis captured south of Baghdad were reported wearing the arm patches of the Nebuchadnezzar Division, which was supposed to have been guarding cities in the north.

The U.S. military has detected signs that reinforcements are being sent to some front-line Republican Guard units, while other Iraqi units are pulling back, closer to Baghdad, according to a senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Defense officials said commanders want to be sure the Republican Guard troops -- the best trained and equipped of Iraq's military -- are significantly softened up before coalition troops meet them in ground fighting. During the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. ground forces didn't attack until Republican Guard units had lost 50 percent to 60 percent of their capacity.

The attack on Baghdad, population 5 million, will not be a siege of the city, Myers said, adding that "we have plans for several different contingencies."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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