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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Allied warplanes on Saturday began flying missions over the Iraqi capital specifically designed to prepare for any future U.S. ground attack on downtown Baghdad, the U.S. Air Force general in charge of the air war said.
Lt. Gen. Michael Moseley, speaking from his command post in Saudi Arabia, said he hoped that the Iraqi regime would surrender before urban warfare became necessary. But as of Saturday the planes that would provide air support for ground forces inside the city were implementing his plan.
He said a wide variety of aircraft began performing the mission of "airborne forward air controllers" over Baghdad to direct airstrikes that might be required in the event ground forces began fighting in the city's center. He said the planes are flying on both sides of the Tigris River, which runs through Baghdad.
Moseley discussed the air portion of the Iraq war in a 90-minute interview with reporters at the Pentagon.
He said the notion that allied air power has been used to soften up the Iraqi Republican Guard ground troops, the backbone of Saddam Hussein's army, falls short of reality.
"We're not softening them up. We're killing them," he said.
Moseley said the Republican Guard has been hit so hard over the past two weeks that it "doesn't really exist any more" as a cohesive force that can attack in sizable formations.
"I don't for a second believe they are 100 percent killed," he said, but they no longer present the threat to U.S. ground forces that they did when the war began March 20. Similarly, Iraq's vaunted air defenses have been ground down to the point where U.S. aircraft can fly with impunity, he said.
As an illustration of U.S. air supremacy, Moseley said a Predator drone aircraft that provides live video images of ground targets flew a 12-hour mission over Baghdad on Friday.
Moseley said some Republican Guard troops have been "trying to get away" from U.S. air and ground pressure and attempting to regroup to fight later. He asserted that they stand no realistic chance.
"We either kill them or they give up," he said. "There's no way out for these guys."
Other U.S. military officials have painted a similar picture of the degraded state of Iraq's military.
"What strikes me is what seems to be a very poorly directed campaign on the Iraqi side," said Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Their execution on the battlefield has really been sad, from the standpoint of military execution."
U.S. tanks and armored vehicles entered Baghdad Saturday on what military officials called reconnaissance probes into the capital. U.S. Army units worked to consolidate their hold on the newly renamed Baghdad International Airport southwest of the city, while Marine forces advanced to the southeastern outskirts.
In a statement read on satellite television, the Iraqi military said a "valiant force" of Iraqi fighters turned back the Americans as they tried to move into the capital from the south. "We were able to chop off their rotten heads," the statement said.
Pentagon officials said the idea was to create a loose cordon around Baghdad, letting civilians leave and humanitarian aid enter, as special forces and regular troops went after Saddam Hussein's centers of power. It's a strategy meant to avoid much of the vicious street-to-street fighting the Iraqis say they want to inflict on American troops.
Pace said that while the battle's front lines might be somewhat stationary, raids from the air and ground will reach into the city.
"It's really a matter of timing between our air power and our ground power," Pace said in an AP Broadcast interview. "There's not going to be a waiting period. We'll continue to take the fight to the enemy in the air and on the ground."
Pace said whether Saddam was alive or dead was irrelevant.
"Either he's alive, and giving really bad direction to his armed forces, or he's dead and they're making things up as they go," Pace said.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)