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Pentagon: Republican Guard Strength Significantly Degraded - 2003-04-01

A top Pentagon commander says several days of punishing air strikes have significantly degraded Saddam Hussein's best trained fighters, the Republican Guard, ringing the Iraqi capital. Even so, the Iraqi government is striking a new tone of defiance, declaring that the U.S. and British-led war to topple Saddam Hussein will fail.

Monday saw more battles between U.S. and Iraqi forces on the southern approach to Baghdad. Advance U.S. troops are moving closer to the city, a point highlighted by President Bush during a speech in Philadelphia. "Day by day, we are moving closer to Baghdad. Day by day, we are moving closer to victory," he said.

And, American bombers and cruise missiles continue to pound key command and control centers in Baghdad, as well as Saddam Hussein's most loyal forces ringing the Iraqi capital.

"We are seeing significant degradation of those forces," said Pentagon spokesman General Stanley McChrystal. "I won't put an exact number on it, but I will say very significant weakening of the forces."

He calls the targeting of the Republican Guard another step in the march to take the Iraqi capital. "There are maneuvers going to try to destroy those divisions that stand in our way," he said.

But for another day, more intense fighting was reported farther south in the central town of Najaf, which sits along a key re-supply route for frontline U.S. troops. Among the casualties were seven Iraqi women and children, killed when the U.S. military says their vehicle refused to stop at an army checkpoint.

It was in that same area Saturday that a car bomb at a military checkpoint killed four U.S. soldiers, the kind of attack the Iraqi government has threatened will continue. From a bombed government building in Baghdad, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, told reporters, more than 5,000 Arabs have come to Iraq to join the fight against coalition forces.

"Those American and British soldiers who will not surrender to our forces will face nothing but death. We shall turn our desert into a big graveyard," he said.

But Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke told reporters the United States has seen reports that relatives of top Iraqi officials are trying to flee the country.

"I know if I were an Iraqi citizen, I'd be saying, look at what's been going on here for the last 10 days or 12 days, and we haven't seen any of our leaders," she said.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was seen on state television Monday, meeting with his two sons, and chairing a meeting of his top military commanders. Correspondents in Baghdad say it was not clear from the broadcast when the footage was taken. U.S. officials say they don't know whether the Iraqi leader is dead or alive, and say there are indications his several televised appearances over the past 12 days may have been taped in advance.