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Republican Guard units moving south to meet US forces
By John Chalmers, Reuters, 4/3/03
AS SAYLIYA CAMP, Qatar -- Elements of four Iraqi Republican Guard divisions moved south Thursday to engage U.S. troops closing in on Baghdad and its airport, U.S. military officials said.
But the big question remained what had happened to the bulk of the Republican Guard, a 70,000-strong force reputed to be fiercely nationalist and loyal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
"Whether it is melting away ... by choosing not to fight anymore or whether it's repositioning, there is some movement that's ongoing," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said at U.S. Central Command forward headquarters in Qatar.
"Moving forces are very vulnerable to our air operations and our precision attacks," Brooks told a news conference.
Washington says that two of the Republican Guard's divisions that had tried to block the advance of U.S. forces to the Iraqi capital have been smashed and put out of action. Iraq denies its elite force has suffered major losses.
"The Baghdad Division and the Medina Division of the Republican Guard are no longer effective fighting forces," Capt. Frank Thorp told Reuters at U.S. Central Command.
"We have reports that members of the other four divisions are moving south. We are engaging them, but we don't yet have any direct confrontation with the Republican Guard divisions as a whole."
'WE'VE HAD ENOUGH, WE SURRENDER'
Earlier, U.S. military sources said units of the Republican Guard were heading south from Baghdad as vanguard U.S. units advanced to within about 19 miles of the southern outskirts of the city. They said the Iraqis on the move were believed to be from the Hammurabi Mechanized Division.
The Republican Guard consists of six full divisions, each of which has up to 10,000 men.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies Web site (www.iiss.org) showed the Hammurabi dug in on the southwest of the city, the Nebuchadnezzar Division holding positions to the north and southwest, Al Nida to the southeast and the Adnan Division possibly far to the north at Tikrit.
Brooks said that outside Kut -- an area southeast of the capital and held by the Baghdad Division -- 53 Guard personnel approached and said, "We've had enough, we surrender."
Brooks said special forces had also denied "regime movement" on the road north of Baghdad toward Saddam's hometown, Tikrit, suggesting the Adnan Division may be blocked.
But he acknowledged it was difficult to account for what had happened to Iraq's 350,000-member national army.
There have been scattered reports of corpses spotted after battles and of discarded uniforms, but fewer than 10,000 Iraqi soldiers have been taken prisoner and there have been no reports from the bombarded defenses on the approaches to Baghdad.
"This latest advance does raise questions," French military consultant Col. Jean-Louis Dufour commented.
WHERE ARE THEY ALL?
"What has happened to the Republican Guard? Have they been wiped out, or have they withdrawn from circulation to regroup in Baghdad?" he asked.
"Until you actually get somewhere, it is very difficult to assess the damage done on the ground by airstrikes."
Military sources said U.S. spy planes had spotted Iraqi reinforcements moving during the night, apparently to bolster positions along the Euphrates River and around Saddam International Airport, which are under threat from U.S. troops.
Some U.S. troops have secured positions on the eastern side of the Euphrates after crossing a strategic bridge Wednesday.
Thorp said U.S. troops were "outside of the Baghdad airport" and positioning themselves to fight for control of it. The airport is about 12 miles southwest of the center of the sprawling city of 5 million people.
He said U.S special forces had gone into Iraqi installations near Baghdad overnight, including one of Saddam's palace residences, taken a look around and pulled back again.
Saddam and other senior figures have many palace compounds in and around the sprawling Iraqi capital.
"Coalition special forces are operating all around the whole country ... specifically over the last 24 hours special forces are operating closer to Baghdad and have moved in to save the dams, save bridges as well as moving into command and control facilities and bringing down very important regime positions," Thorp said.
He said bridges and dams had been "wired for destruction" by the Iraqis and U.S.-led forces had gone in to save them.