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US Officials Defend War Planning - 2003-03-31

Coalition forces Sunday kept the pressure on Iraqi forces, who continue to put up stubborn resistance. Meanwhile, U.S. officials defended their war planning.

Coalition air forces unleashed another torrent of firepower on Baghdad, while ground troops pressed forward for a seemingly inevitable clash with entrenched Iraqi Republican Guard entrenched on the road to the capital. There were skirmishes Sunday along the political front, too, as U.S. officials found themselves on the defensive about planning and expectations for the war.

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

The head of U.S. Central Command, General Tommy Franks, said a solid front had been opened by American troops in areas of northern Iraq under Kurdish control. Meanwhile, British forces continued their offensive around the southern city of Basra.

Appearing Sunday on ABC's This Week television show, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the battle for Baghdad 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."

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

The push towards Baghdad has been slowed by the unexpectedly fierce resistance shown by Iraqi troops. The quick collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime envisioned by some American officials has not occurred. But Mr. Rumsfeld and other top officials say the war is on track. And, speaking in Washington late Sunday, Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed what he called "total confidence" in General Franks and his war plan.

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

General Franks dismissed criticism of the war plan. He said the plan was drawn up to give battlefield commanders flexibility. "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.