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Coalition Forces Press for Advantage on Battlefield - 2003-03-31

There were both military and political skirmishes Sunday in the war in Iraq. U.S. and coalition forces pressed for advantage on the battlefield, while U.S. officials defended their war planning.

As the war entered its 11th day, coalition forces were on the offensive, pushing to open routes to Baghdad and to tighten the noose around Basra, the country's second largest city.

But, on the political front, senior U.S. officials were on the defensive against criticism that their war planning had been unrealistically optimistic.

U.S. troops surrounded the city of Najaf, some 160 kilometers south of Baghdad and braced for what could be a bloody urban battle. A suicide bomber killed four U.S. soldiers at a checkpoint near the city Saturday, and Iraqi officials have pledged there will be more such attacks. Small irregular Iraqi units have also mounted hit-and-run attacks in attempts to disrupt coalition supply lines.

British forces continued to battle around the southern city of Basra, where Iraqi fighters have put up stiff resistance.

Meanwhile, Baghdad continued to be hit by air strikes. Appearing on ABC's This Week television show, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Iraqi Republican Guard units have dug in around Baghdad. He said the battle for the Iraqi capital will likely prove to be the toughest of the campaign.

"Well what they've done is that they've pulled back closer [to Baghdad]," he said. "Now, there may be some very tough days ahead because as we move forward and have to deal with and these forces have to deal with the Republican Guard, that very likely will be the most difficult fighting days the coalition will face."

The push towards Baghdad has been slowed by unexpectedly fierce resistance from Iraqi troops, and the quick collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime envisioned by some officials has not occurred.

Against a barrage of skeptical questioning from reporters, Mr. Rumsfeld and other top officials say the war now only in its 11th day is on track, and are defending their planning for it.

In Doha, Qatar, the head of the U.S. Central Command, General Tommy Franks, praised the successes to date. "We're in fact on plan. And where we stand today is not only acceptable in my view, it is truly remarkable," he said.

General Franks said the war plan is flexible to allow commanders to adapt to a variety of battlefield situations. "Those who would seek to find a wedge between the various people among us, the various leaders, who have been party to this [plan], will likely not be able to do so because this has been worked and studied and, as we say, iterated, over a long period of time," he said. "Its chief characteristic is flexibility, adaptability. It gives us the way and the force to respond to opportunities we seek."

An additional 120,000 U.S. soldiers are being readied for deployment to the area, but are not expected to be combat-ready for several weeks.