The battle for Baghdad appears to be under way and it likely marks the beginning of the end for the Iraqi leadership. But while thousands of Iraqi soldiers, including at least seven generals, have already surrendered, there have been no signs yet that the government of Saddam Hussein is prepared to capitulate.
The battle for Baghdad is the final threat to the core of the Iraqi leadership, a regime whose dominant figures have disappeared from public view, whose strategic sites have been pounded by airstrikes and whose control over the country and its military forces has been severely weakened.
Yet, despite repeated appeals to senior Iraqi leaders and military commanders to surrender, no one appears to have come forward yet from the capital to discuss capitulation.
Chief Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke says one problem could be that no one is clearly in charge. Another could be the stated coalition demand for unconditional surrender.
"Who knows who's in charge? We just don't know who is in charge," she said. "We have made it very, very clear what our expectations are. It doesn't seem likely at this stage that someone's going to come forward."
Yet Ms. Clarke says the predicament of the Iraqi leadership should be clear.
"Oh, I think they probably understand their predicament," she said. "We just haven't seen somebody come forward and say, 'Let's stop this.'"
Senior military officials believe the reason this has not yet happened is that those top leaders still alive in Baghdad are clinging to some hope, not of any military victory but of bogging U.S. led forces down in a prolonged and bloody urban war. It's thought that could turn international public opinion against any further fighting and weaken U.S. resolve. This, in turn, could lead to a settlement short of total, unconditional surrender.
Pentagon officials believe there have already been what amounts to test runs of brutal street fighting that have taken place on the road to Baghdad, in places like Nasiriyah, where coalition units suffered some 20 dead, a dozen wounded and more than a dozen missing, some of whom ended up as prisoners paraded on Iraqi television.
The problems troops ran into in Nasiriyah included fake surrenders by Iraqis dressed in civilian clothes who then opened fire and ambushes in which Iraqi women were used as scouts to locate coalition positions. The difficulty of distinguishing Iraqi fighters from civilians led to numerous civilian deaths.
Defense officials wonder, if that could happen in Nasiriyah, with a population of about 500,000, what could happen to coalition soldiers who enter Baghdad, with a population of five million.
In the meantime, though, Ms. Clarke says there are growing signs that increasing numbers of Iraqis do see the writing on the wall. She says more and more are now offering direct assistance to coalition forces.
"We have seen some evidence and information that increasing numbers of Iraqi people are aware of what is going on," she said. "And I won't go into too many details of how we know that. But you could, just evidenced by the people who are coming forward to help the coalition forces, I think they are getting a better sense that this regime is coming closer to its end."
Still, senior defense officials including Ms. Clarke are warning of possibly difficult and challenging days ahead. The Pentagon spokeswoman says, quoting now, "we are not underestimating how tough it could be going forward."