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Iraqi Defense Minister:  War Could Drag On for Months - 2003-03-27

Iraq's defense minister warns U.S.-led forces will face a tough street-to-street fight once they reach Baghdad in what he predicts will be five to 10 days.

Speaking at a news conference, Iraqi Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmed said U.S.-led forces, advancing towards Baghdad from the south, southeast and southwest, would soon surround the capital city. But, he warned, coalition troops would then face street-to-street fighting. Mr. Ahmed thinks the war could drag on for months, as Iraqis are prepared to fight to the end.

The defense minister added U.S. airstrikes on Iraqi army positions around Baghdad had caused minimum casualties so far. He also said that U.S. military supply lines were overstretched, reaching as far as 500 kilometers.

In the week since the war began, coalition forces have tried to secure areas in southern Iraq while advancing towards Baghdad. But Mr. Ahmed said coalition troops have so far only secured the port of Umm Qasr, and that Iraqi forces had broken the siege on the city of Najaf, some 160 kilometers from Baghdad.

Earlier in the day, Iraqi Health Minister Umid Midhat Mubarak said 350 Iraqi civilians have been killed and more than 4,000 injured since the war began. He said 36 civilians have been killed in Baghdad since Wednesday and there was a "very dramatic" humanitarian crisis developing in the southern city of Basra.

Coalition forces are unable to verify these claims. Senior coalition officers have said repeatedly they're making every effort to limit civilian casualties. They accuse Iraq of exposing its people to harm by placing troops and military weapons close to civilian populations.