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WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. and British air strikes have caused "a very significant weakening" of Iraqi forces, and Iraqi commanders are moving Republican Guard troops around to shore up their strength, the Pentagon said Monday.
During a briefing with reporters, Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said 3,000 precision-guided bombs were dropped on Iraqi forces over the weekend, more than a third of the total number dropped since the war began.
The bombings have caused "a very significant weakening of the forces," McChrystal said. "We are seeing some movement of Republican Guard formations as well. ... What we think we're seeing them do is moving to reinforce other (units) that have severely degraded."
U.S. and British aircraft flew about 1,000 missions over Iraq on Sunday, McChrystal said, most of them targeting specific Republican Guard divisions, as well as command and control facilities.
The 3,000 bombs dropped over the weekend raised to 8,000 the total number of bombs used since the war began March 20, he said.
Pentagon spokeswoman Tori Clarke said U.S. officials have seen evidence that members of Saddam Hussein's family, and the families of senior Iraqi officials, have tried to flee the country. When pressed for details she would not elaborate.
"We have seen some reports recently, and I'll leave it at that," she said.
In what could be a prelude to the battle for the Iraqi capital, American forces are doing what one senior Pentagon official called "aggressive armed reconnaissance" in a number of areas rimming the southern approaches to Baghdad.
A number of units have been sent on probing missions forward of fighting positions to assess Iraqi troop strength and cut Iraqi forces off where they can, two Defense Department officials said.
Officials discussed this only on condition of anonymity.
A week of heavy bombing has left some of Iraq's Republican Guard units surrounding Baghdad at less than half strength, with the Medina and Baghdad divisions the most severely degraded, Pentagon officials said.
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.
This has led defense officials to believe reinforcements have been sent from the north to bolster the degraded southern Guard units. Officials said other Iraqi units have been seen pulling back, closer to Baghdad.
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," Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 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 Secretary of Defense 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.
In the west, coalition aircraft Monday morning struck a gathering of paramilitary forces taking shelter in an unused prison in the town of Rutbah, the Air Force said. Paramilitaries used by the regime to maintain control of the population have been operating in the south as well, preventing Iraqi troops from surrendering, defense officials have said.
Air Force officials also said in a statement that for the first time in history, multiple B-1, B-2 and B-52 long-range strike aircraft targeted the same geographical area at the same time over the weekend. It's a complicated operation that requires precise choreography and allows them to hit a diverse package of targets at the same time.
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 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.) .