WASHINGTON – Briefing congressional members on the progress of the military mission in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday that the war is going very well and it won't be long before the Iraqi people are liberated.
"Things are going very well. Gen. [Tommy] Franks and his team are first rate. They have a plan that I think is excellent. They are going with it," Rumsfeld said of the central commander and his group leading operations on the ground in the region. "There is no doubt that that regime will not be there in the future."
Rumsfeld would not answer questions about troop movements or reports that Marines had entered the southern port of Iraq, but did say at some point the people of Iraq will be relieved and the military will refuse to carry out orders regarding weapons of mass destruction.
The secretary's comments were the first since Thursday morning when he announced that U.S. forces hit a "senior Iraqi leadership compound" near Baghdad on Wednesday night, but a report on the extent of damage was still pending.
"We have very good intelligence that it was a senior Iraqi leadership compound. We do not know what the battle damage assessment will be until that information is available to us," Rumsfeld said.
Later, officials said that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein appeared to have survived initial attacks on his compound.
On Wednesday night, dozens of cruise missiles from ships in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf and several F-117 stealth fighters with precision-guided missiles pounded targets that were believed to contain either Saddam Hussein, his two sons or two other key Iraqi leaders.
A senior military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said military intelligence was picking up signs and "circumstantial evidence" that Saddam and his senior leadership were either incapacitated or out of communication with battlefield commanders. It was too early to say if they were killed or wounded.
"We are seeing no coordinated response to our first attack," the official said. "It's little things here and there. Some individual commanders are hunkering down while others are launching small attacks and setting fires."
The mission was not the "shock and awe" campaign that the administration said it would unleash when war began, leading many to say the Defense Department diverged from its script.
In response, Rumsfeld told reporters Thursday that he didn't believe anyone outside the military had the plan of attack. He said he was happy about that.
The limited and targeted attack has led many nations to reassess the war against Iraq. Rumsfeld said that the coalition of the willing — the group of countries in support of the action now dubbed Operation Iraqi Freedom — is growing since the pre-attack hours and is now larger than the allied force that liberated Kuwait from Saddam's grip in 1991.
Rumsfeld also said that people in Iraq — both military and civilian — were realizing that their "liberation will soon be at hand." With that knowledge, Iraq's soldiers had already started surrendering and more defections were expected in the short term.
"[The Iraqi people] have to be fearful of that regime because that regime kills people every day to enforce obedience," he said. "Once they are persuaded that regime is history ... then their behavior begins to tip and change.
"When I said we had good evidence, not only do we have good evidence, we have broad and detailed evidence, that there are people going through that decision-making process throughout that country today and that is a good thing," Rumsfeld added.
Rumsfeld said the Pentagon was "in the process of trying to get additional information" on whether the Iraqi regime may have set fire to as many as three or four oil wells in the south. Reports were coming in to Fox News that the Rumaylah oil fields west of Basrah were set afire, but confirmation was still pending.
Rumsfeld warned Iraqi soldiers that those who follow orders to destroy Iraqi oil fields and other facilities will be committing crimes — and that they will be found and punished.
"It is a crime for that regime to destroy the riches of that nation," Rumsfeld said.
The defense secretary also warned his own officials and soldiers not to compromise information that "could give the enemy knowledge of the position of our forces, or the time or the plans."
Hours before the missile strikes Wednesday night, a helicopter carrying U.S. special forces crashed inside southern Iraq, a senior defense official said. There were no casualties and the troops on board were all taken out safely. The official said the military was taking steps to destroy the helicopter rather than let it fall into Iraqi hands.
The incident makes clear the Pentagon was using a well-worn war tactic of dropping special commando forces behind enemy lines before the opening of the rest of the campaign.
The defense official also said a small plane was headed from Iraq toward a Marine expeditionary force position in Kuwait but crashed short of its mark. The Marines donned gas masks because of fears that the plane could have been carrying chemical weapons, the official said. No agents were detected.
The secretary would not say how long the mission would take, adding that he is not counting the hours.
"We have a serious task before us and it is to remove that regime and find those weapons of mass destruction and replace it with a government that does not want those weapons and will not threaten its neighbors. ... This is a process that will take some time. It will ebb and flow and when it's over the regime will be gone," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.