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Commanders prepared for high number of U.S. combat deaths in battle for Baghdad

DOHA, Qatar—American commanders are prepared to suffer a high number of U.S. combat deaths during the battle for Baghdad and will not leave Iraq until Saddam Hussein is toppled, a senior official at U.S Central Command said Monday.

Generals see "an awful lot of ominous signs" that Saddam will use weapons of mass destruction and they believe the Nebuchadnezzar division of the elite Republican Guard has moved south of Baghdad to shore up the unit's Medina Division, which has been pounded by American airstrikes, the official said.

But neither concern changes the goal of winning Baghdad.

"We're prepared to pay a very high price," the official said, speaking with several reporters on condition of anonymity. "If that means there will be a lot of casualties, there will be a lot of casualties.

"It would be impossible for anyone to think we will walk away with anything besides victory."

In a wide-ranging interview at coalition headquarters in Qatar, the official said he soon expects Iraqis in the southern cities of Basra and Nasiriyah to rise up against Saddam supporters.

The official said commanders are concerned that U.S. troops have found more gas masks, protective suits and chemical detection equipment in overrun Iraqi positions than was expected, and those finds have increased commanders' belief that Iraqis have been authorized to use chemical weapons.

"We have found a lot more of it than we're comfortable with," the official said. "Will people hesitate to act on those orders? I can only say I hope so."

The official said, however, that is not surprising that coalition forces have yet to find any chemical weapons, calling them "probably hidden very well."

Commanders believe they will find chemical and biological weapons after the war, once they can talk to Iraqis who helped make, use and hide them.

"The hunt is very, very important to us, but the hunt really happens in stability operations rather than combat operations," the official said.

The official also said that the war plan, criticized in some quarters for underestimating the number of troops that would be necessary to carry out the war, is not a minute-by-minute plan, but rather a "framework that allows for different locations and different pressures." He cautioned it may not unfold as people expect, particularly the Baghdad invasion many believe will be key to the war.

"People have this view of the campaign that it's all about the 3rd Infantry Division moving down the road," the official said. "If you're looking for a big push of World War II-sorts of forms, I don't know that you'll see it."

The official conceded that the coalition has not shattered Saddam's "resilient" regime.

He acknowledged it will take time to break Saddam's "powerful enforcement system and repression system," especially since Iraqis have been "beaten up" for 12 years after the United States broke its pledge to help uprisings aimed at overthrowing Saddam.

"We bear a certain responsibility for what we didn't do in 1991, and it's playing itself out on the battlefield," the official said. "You let somebody down once, you don't want to do it again.

Saddam is "a survivor," the official said. "Until we prove that he's not going to be a survivor, some people are not going to believe it."

He also suggested reporters traveling with U.S. troops in Iraq may be giving an exaggerated account of the difficulties of the battle. He noted that fewer than 70 American and British soldiers have died, comparing it to World War II, when as many as 1,000 Americans died on some days.

"You've got to keep things in perspective," the official said.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.