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End of war could be in sight, but dangers still remain for U.S. troops

Posted: Thursday, April 10, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Signs of the collapse of Saddam Hussein's quarter-century of rule are everywhere in Iraq. But as Iraqis take to the streets to celebrate, important loose ends remain.

Sniper fire continues, looting is widespread, units loyal to Saddam are regrouping to the north -- and his fate is unknown.

Allied forces have yet to find arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. And little is known of the status of American prisoners of war.

But for now, such concerns are being eclipsed by dramatic symbols of U.S. victory in Baghdad -- Iraqis toppling a 40-foot statue of Saddam with help from U.S. Marines, the honking of car horns and dancing in the streets, flashing ''V'' signs at U.S. convoys that move freely through the capital.

Administration backers hoped such images would vindicate the president's decision to use force without U.N. blessings and ease widespread international opposition to the war.

President Bush followed some of the developments on television, aides said. Vice President Dick Cheney, in his first comments on the war since before it began three weeks ago, emerged on Wednesday to declare it ''one of the most extraordinary military campaigns ever conducted.''

Still, sporadic and sometimes fierce battles flared in the Iraqi capital, including around Baghdad University. Forces loyal to Saddam remained active in other parts of the country, particularly in the north, while urban combat continued in several southern cities.

But American policy-makers and military analysts suggested that Saddam's government was disintegrating -- and may have lost control over its military units as well as over other functions.

''You cannot find a clear picture of any command and control being exercised by the regime. Beyond that, it's a matter of time,'' said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., after a briefing by Pentagon officials.

Some Iraqi fighters could battle to the death, U.S. officials warned.

But the military value of such an effort -- against an overwhelmingly superior American force -- was debatable.

''Loyalty is no substitute for battle management, although it can prolong the war for some time,'' said Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He said there is ample evidence that remaining Republican Guard and irregular military groups lack coordination and ''none have any experience in fighting together.''

U.S. officials had no way of knowing whether Saddam had managed to escape Monday's bombing of buildings in a residential area that had targeted him and his sons -- but suggested there was no evidence he remains in charge.

''He's either dead, or he's incapacitated. Or he's healthy and cowering in some tunnel someplace trying to avoid being caught,'' said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. ''He's not been around, he's not been active.''

While some of the military opposition seemed to be melting away, Pentagon officials said there were still Iraqi paramilitary fighters operating west of Baghdad and pockets of resistance elsewhere. More than 10 regular Iraqi army divisions were said to be intact in the north and one brigade of the Republican Guard.

At U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, cautioned that Saddam loyalists were holding out at Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, about 100 miles north of the capital, and still posed a threat.

But in matter-of-fact words fraught with significance, Brooks announced that Baghdad had been added to a list of areas ''where the regime does not now have control.''

That new status was reinforced as cheering Iraqis swarmed onto the streets, no longer fearing retribution.

Saddam has ''totally lost power,'' said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. ''Whether he's dead or alive, he's out of commission.''

Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.



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