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WASHINGTON (AP) -- As U.S.-led forces neared Baghdad, the Pentagon sought Wednesday to lower expectations that the Iraqi capital could be taken quickly or easily.
"We are planning for a very difficult fight ahead in Baghdad," Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal told a Pentagon news conference. "We are not expecting to drive into Baghdad suddenly and seize it."
Defense officials, updating the war toll, said 49 Americans had died, seven have been captured, 15 are missing and 154 have been wounded.
U.S. military officials have weathered criticism over the past week as commanders, other Pentagon officials and outside analysts said the war effort had been slowed by unexpectedly stiff resistance and a plan that may have relied on too few troops.
McChrystal and department spokeswoman Victoria Clarke told reporters at least six times in a half-hour briefing that the toughest fighting may lie ahead.
McChrystal said a major American offensive had pushed closer to Baghdad amid resistance from Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard that was "sporadic, but not able to stop coalition maneuvers."
Republican Guard forces, better trained and equipped than Iraq's regular army, were "arrayed for a defense on the southern side of Baghdad ... and on the flanks as well," McChrystal said. "Whether they intend to defend in place or just delay is just not clear."
It was unclear whether those Iraqi forces had some of the chemical and biological weapons that U.S. leaders say Saddam is hiding -- and whether they could or would use them.
From the start of the war, the Pentagon has hoped that with the help of invading forces the Iraqi military would surrender in great numbers and civilians might revolt.
With ground forces pressing closer to Baghdad, officials said they were hopeful that the chances of those things happening were increasing.
The assessment came after a daylong battle against Guard forces on the outskirts of the capital.
Though two division were reported to have been largely eliminated as an effective fighting force, there were four others that officials said remained somewhat intact. Two were estimated at 70 percent effectiveness and two somewhat less, according to a defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The last line of defense for Baghdad may be Saddam's Special Republican Guard and Special Security Organization. It was not clear what damage had been done to the Special Republican Guard, for instance, a light infantry force that was estimated to have started the war with 15,000 troops. The security organization is basically a paramilitary force estimated at 6,000 to 8,000.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)