WASHINGTON – As the 48-hour clock continues to wind down on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, there are signs that thousands of Iraqi troops are planning to surrender to the U.S. and its allies even in the first hours of war, Fox News has learned.
Senior Defense officials say they are seeing reports that in the first few hours of a military conflict, thousands of Saddam's soldiers will wave the white flag.
U.S. Central Command — led by Gen. Tommy Franks — is looking into reports of surrender attempts in the north and the south. Officials say Iraq's Republican Guard units have pulled out of the north - leaving behind conscripts who will likely surrender in large numbers.
"We have a pretty good idea who wants to surrender and who doesn't," one Defense official told Fox News. The intelligence community continues to get signs that even Saddam's top military structure is "brittle," the official said.
Iraqi troops who surrender will be taken into custody under the Geneva Convention as prisoners of war.
The U.S. military is trying to negotiate "capitulation agreements" with Iraqi commanders under which enemy troops would turn over most of their weapons and return to their barracks rather than be taken as prisoners of war, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.
Under this deal, Iraqi officers would be allowed to keep their sidearms and remain in charge of their units as long as they promised to steer clear of battle. U.S. forces would then be free to march toward Baghdad without being slowed down by thousands of prisoners.
Asked if any Iraqi commanders had accepted the offer, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force replied: "We’re encouraged that could happen in some cases."
Senior Defense officials are watching a number of other things in Iraq very closely.
Five or six Republican Guard units are now "out of garrison," meaning they have dispersed around Baghdad, most likely in an effort to stay out of buildings and areas that will be U.S. targets in the first hours of an air campaign.
Officials say numerous intelligence reports continue to point to a Republican Guard unit in the southern city of Al Kut, southeast of Baghdad, being armed with chemical weapons - artillery shells filled with VX, sarin or mustard gas.
At least two Iraqi oil wells in southern Iraq have "been opened" and have spilled onto the desert floor. U.S. officials say this could be part of an Iraqi effort to rig oil wells with explosives and fill dozens of ditches with oil to set them on fire.
Exploding oil wells, ignited oil-filled ditches and oil spills might slow U.S. troops down — but Pentagon sources said they will not stop a march on Baghdad.
"In any conflict, your fate will depend on your action," President Bush said in his address to the nation Monday. "Do not destroy oil wells, a source of wealth that belongs to the Iraqi people. Do not obey any command to use weapons of mass destruction against anyone, including the Iraqi people. War crimes will be prosecuted. War criminals will be punished. And it will be no defense to say, 'I was just following orders.'"
The U.S. military, meanwhile, continues to bombard military units in the south of Iraq with about 12 million leaflets, e-mails and broadcasts urging them to surrender.
"Indications are very scattered, but I would say positive," one official told Reuters news agency.
A spokesman at Central Command's Gulf military headquarters in Qatar said 1.4 million leaflets were dumped Monday — the biggest drop to date.
There are several types of leaflets: some contain references for Iraqis to tune to radio frequencies where coalition forces are broadcasting information about United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441; U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq; Saddam's reign; warnings to Iraqi troops not to use weapons of mass destruction; and warning to troops that the coalition will destroy any viable military targets and doesn't want to destroy landmarks or hurt the Iraqi people.
Another leaflet tells Iraqi troops to "not risk their life and the life of their comrades," and to "leave now, go home, and learn, grow, prosper."
Defense officials said very specific instructions are being given to Iraqi forces who want to surrender, including to leave their tanks with their turrets reversed and to abandon vehicles in the open while returning to barracks.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Tuesday that U.S. troops are headed into Iraq one way or another. If Saddam seeks exile, U.S. forces will enter Iraq to disarm it — hopefully without opposition.
Bush, meanwhile, spent Tuesday talking to international leaders in an effort to recruit war partners.
The president spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Hu Jintao - two leaders who resisted setting an ultimatum for using force against Saddam. Both said they preferred a U.N.-brokered solution.
Putin, who became close with Bush after the president took office, "expressed regret in connection with Washington's decision to issue the ultimatum and the fact that intensive diplomatic efforts had failed to produce a mutually acceptable compromise," the Kremlin said.
"The two openly acknowledged that they don't see eye-to-eye on whether or not force should be used to disarm Saddam Hussein," Fleischer said. "They agree about the threats in the region."
Hu said U.N. weapons inspections must continue despite the U.S. ultimatum.
The Chinese leader told Bush that China hopes for "peace instead of war" and wants a political settlement through the United Nations, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Despite their opposition, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday that 30 nations have declared varying levels of support and 15 others have given their backing privately.
And that support will be needed, since Iraq's leadership on Tuesday rejected Bush's ultimatum.
"Iraq has made a series of mistakes, including arming themselves with weapons of mass destruction that have brought this crisis upon itself," Fleischer said. "This is the latest mistake Iraq could make. It would be Saddam's final mistake … the president still hopes he will take the ultimatum seriously and leave the country."
But Fleischer would not rule out a U.S. attack before Bush's 48-hour clock ran out if the Iraqi leader rejects the exile offer.
"Saddam Hussein has to figure out what this means," he said.
Fox News' Bret Baier and Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.