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Iraqi Government Continues Tone of Defiance, Vows to Survive Attacks - 2003-04-01

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

Monday saw more battles between American and Iraqi forces on the southern approach to Baghdad. Advance U.S. troops are now closer to the city than at any time since the start of operation Iraqi Freedom 12 days ago, a point highlighted by President Bush during a speech in Philadelphia. "Day by day, we are moving closer to Baghdad," he said. "Day by day, we are moving closer to victory." 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."

General Stanley McChrystal 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."

But as the fighting heads into its 13th day, coalition forces still do not have full control of any of Iraq's major urban areas and continue to face tough battles in towns in south and central Iraq, including Najaf, which is proving to be one of the longest battles of the war so far.

"How is it going? Slowly, yep that's true," said British military spokesman Colonel Chris Vernon. "But these things do go slowly. Eleven days is a very short time in an overall period of warfare at this level of high intensity."

The U.S. Army says soldiers shot and killed seven Iraqi women and children Monday when their van refused orders to stop at an Army checkpoint near Najaf, even after warning shots were fired. It was in that same area Saturday that a suicide car bomber killed four American 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 battle against coalition forces. "Those American and British soldiers who will not surrender to our forces will face nothing but death," he says. "We shall turn our desert into a big graveyard."

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 says.

But 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 speculate the Iraqi leader may have been injured if not killed in the first air strike of the war and say there are indications his several televised appearances over the past 12 days may have been taped in advance.