WASHINGTON—The United States has been in direct negotiations with generals in Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard this week, trying to persuade them to surrender and allow U.S. troops to enter Baghdad, U.S. officials disclosed Friday.
The talks came close to producing a deal on Thursday, said one official with direct knowledge of the covert effort to avoid a prolonged U.S. air and land campaign that could kill thousands of Iraqis, destroy much of the country and outrage the Muslim world.
But the negotiations failed to produce any white flags from Baghdad, and so President Bush and his advisers decided to unleash Friday's massive bombing campaign of Baghdad and other cities on schedule, officials said.
The negotiations with several commanders in the Republican Guard, a 60,000-strong force that is Saddam's most formidable fighting force, are the latest chapter in a sustained U.S. psychological effort to persuade Iraqi generals not to fight.
Revelation of the talks came on a day when U.S. officials said they saw fresh signs of disarray, and perhaps even crumbling authority, at the top of Saddam's regime.
Iraqi television on Friday broadcast a brief videotape of Saddam meeting with his war cabinet. Intelligence officials said it also was not certain when that tape was made.
Other officials noted that three top Saddam aides were not at his side in the tape: Gen. Ali Hassan al Majid, known as "Chemical Ali," the architect of the 1998 nerve-gas campaign against Iraq's Kurds; Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, one of Saddam's most trusted aides; and Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, Iraq's emissary to the outside world.
Saddam's son Qusai, who commands the regime's secret police, did appear at the meeting, however, contradicting early reports that suggested he was killed or seriously injured in the bombing.
Some U.S. intelligence officials are becoming increasingly convinced that Saddam himself was injured, perhaps seriously, in a strike on a leadership compound late Wednesday that was the opening salvo of the war.
U.S. government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, cited information from both spies and intercepted communications. Among the latter was an urgent summons for medical assistance to the compound that indicated that someone very high in the government was badly hurt, officials said.
However, the CIA concluded on Thursday that a tape broadcast of Saddam after the attack on the compound was almost certainly the Iraqi leader and not a double, the White House said Friday. When the tape was made remains unclear.
But electronic intercepts in the hours after the strike "suggested Saddam was losing control, and that his inner circle was crumbling," one official said. Another official said U.S. intelligence has intercepted no orders from Saddam to his military commanders in the field.
At a Pentagon briefing, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declared that "the regime is starting to lose control of their country."
"The confusion of Iraqi officials is growing," Rumsfeld said. "Their ability to see what is happening on the battlefield, to communicate with their forces and to control their country is slipping away. They're beginning to realize, I suspect, that the regime is history."
The Republican Guard's six divisions are far more capable than Iraq's regular army. Most of the force has been repositioned around Baghdad to protect the capital against U.S. ground troops.
The United States has conducted a 3-month-long psychological operations campaign consisting of telephone calls, leaflet drops and even e-mails to persuade Iraqi generals not to fight for a regime that will soon be out of power. In some cases, one official said, U.S. emissaries have called the wives of Iraqi generals when their husbands weren't home.
"We've been spamming every leader that we could get their e-mail (address)," said one official, who said he has seen drafts of the e-mail appeals.
They included a promise that "any good act would be remembered," he said.
U.S. commanders were still trying to persuade several Iraqi Republican Guard commanders to surrender Friday, both directly and through intermediaries, including the Russians.
So far, one senior official said on Friday afternoon, the effort has borne no fruit, although there are signs that some units may be wavering.
The offer contains carrots and sticks, the senior official said.
The Iraqi commanders are being told that if they give up and their units lay down their arms, they won't be prosecuted as war criminals and may be offered roles in the reconstruction of Iraq. If they don't, they'll be killed and their units will be obliterated.
The beginning of the much-discussed "shock and awe" campaign is intended to reinforce these attempts at negotiation, officials said. The initial attacks have included strikes on Republican Guard targets around Kirkuk, Tikrit and Baghdad, the senior official said, calling the opening salvos "a taste of what's to come if they try to resist."
Rumsfeld said, "We have been issuing, through a variety of methods, communications urging the Iraq military to surrender, and ... what we have done this far has not been sufficiently persuasive that they would have done that.
"It may very well be that with the initiation of the ground war last evening and the initiation of the air war this afternoon, that we may find people responding and surrendering," he said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell also referred Friday to the back-channel negotiations.
"There are a number of channels open to Baghdad. There are a number of individuals in countries around the world who have been conveying the message to the Iraqi regime that it is now inevitable that there will be a change," Powell said.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.