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Mystery of Baghdad’s elite guards

As Sayliya Camp, April 3 (Reuters): Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his entourage have promised US-led invasion forces bloody street fighting in the battle for Baghdad.

But just what form that will take — and whether Saddam’s forces will use the chemical weapons Washington accuses them of hiding — is anybody’s guess. US commanders concede even they do not know what lies ahead. “As to what’s inside of Baghdad, we’ll see soon enough,” Brigadier General Vincent Brooks told a briefing at the US Central Command advance headquarters in Qatar today.

“There are a number of things which could be considered at this point,” he said, listing a range of scenarios.

“Has this regime expended all of its capability in other areas' Did they use too much of what they had against us'” he asked. “Have they pulled back into Baghdad to await our arrival' We’ll have to take that into consideration and see if that is the case.”

But with US advance units almost at the gates of the Iraqi capital, the status of the Republican Guard may prove critical. Washington says the Republican Guard’s Baghdad Division and Medina Division have been put out of action. Iraq rejects this.

“We have reports that members of the other four divisions are moving south,” Captain Frank Thorp said at US Central Command.“ We are engaging them, but we don’t yet have any direct confrontation with the Republican Guard divisions as a whole.”

The advance of the past two days went so quickly, that some have questioned whether the Republican Guard withdrew deliberately to lure the Americans into a trap.

But military experts say they believe the Republican Guard, a 70,000-strong elite force reputed to be fiercely nationalist, may well have been defeated.

“I don’t think it’s a trap or it was a surprise,” said Klaus Reinhardt, a German former commander of the Nato-led peace-keeping force in Kosovo.

“The Americans are going forward very systematically,” he said. “They have secured their lines of communication.

“They have brought forward extra forces, specifically three regiments of marines, and they have fixed and struck the Republican Guards ahead of them with their air force, artillery, and with combat helicopters. And they have done this successfully.”

Jonathan Eyal of London’s Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, agreed.

“What we have effectively done is achieved some of the key objectives of the alliance very quickly — to separate two Republican Guard divisions but, more importantly, also to draw out of the immediate defences of the Iraqi capital some of the best assets that Saddam Hussein has,” he said.

“The strategy of the alliance has also been to tie in as tightly as possible a siege around the Iraqi capital, but also to draw out of the Iraqi capital the military assets of Saddam Hussein. It is working, and yesterday one has to admit it worked even much better than the alliance commanders envisaged.”

Reuters correspondents in Baghdad say pick-up trucks equipped with machineguns and anti-aircraft guns are dotted across the city, suggesting preparations for urban warfare.

Military experts predict that the next phase of the conflict is likely to go more slowly.

French military consultant Colonel Jean-Louis Dufour said US forces would have to assess the extent to which they have destroyed the enemy before they can move on.

“What has happened to the Republican Guard' Have they been wiped out, or have they withdrawn from circulation to regroup in Baghdad'” he asked.

“Until you actually get somewhere, it is very difficult to assess the damage done on the ground by air strikes.”

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