WASHINGTON – From the start of the war in Iraq, the Pentagon has predicted that ordinary Iraqis would revolt once it became clear that Saddam Hussein's forces were losing.
Now that U.S. ground forces are beginning to cut through Saddam's Republican Guard on the outskirts of Baghdad, the question arises: Is this the moment that allied pressure -- on the ground, in the air and through psychological warfare -- tips the balance and resistance begins collapsing?
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news conference Tuesday that two of the five main Republican Guard divisions protecting the approaches to Baghdad have been bombed so heavily that they have lost half their combat power.
The Iraqis moved parts of two Republican Guard divisions that normally operate north of Baghdad and near Saddam's hometown of Tikrit to the southern outskirts of the capital, where the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division has begun hitting them.
And yet, Myers and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said, disaffected Iraqis are still being kept in line by Saddam's security forces, including paramilitaries that Rumsfeld calls "death squads."
"You could take out the Republican Guard divisions and if somebody still has got a gun to their head, they're darn well not going to, very likely, decide that it's time to have an uprising," Rumsfeld said.
He nonetheless expressed confidence that millions of Iraqis would join the U.S. cause.
"It will happen. Be patient. That country will be freed and liberated, and this will be over."
Frequently since the war started March 20, Rumsfeld has spoken of creating a combination of conditions inside Iraq that would persuade anti-Saddam Iraqis that the time is right to rise up.
Here is how Rumsfeld put it at a news conference March 21, referring to those around Saddam:
"They're beginning to realize, I suspect, that the regime is history. And as that realization sets in, their behavior is likely to begin to tip and to change. Those close to Saddam Hussein will likely begin searching for a way to save themselves. Those whose obedience is based on fear may well begin to lose their fear of him. Officers and soldiers in the field will increasingly see that their interests lie not in dying for a doomed regime but in helping the forces of Iraq's liberation."
So far, that has not happened, at least not on a large scale.
Here is how Rumsfeld put it Tuesday:
"To keep people from welcoming coalition forces and to prevent the regular army from surrendering or defecting, the regime is depending on execution death squads to maintain a climate of fear. They are vicious to be sure, but they are now taking heavy loses."
Rumsfeld also said there are signs that ordinary Iraqis' fear of the regime "is beginning to slip away."
He cited "a growing amount of anecdotal evidence from various parts of the country" that Iraqis see the regime teetering. Word is spreading, he said, that families of Iraqi leaders are slipping out of the country. That is undermining the morale of pro-Saddam forces and emboldening the disaffected. Other U.S. officials characterized reports of Iraqi leaders leaving as unconfirmed rumor, including a specific report that one of Saddam's wives tried to flee to Syria.
The Iraqi regime is counteracting this, Rumsfeld said, by spreading false rumors about cracks in the alliance.
"Iraqi officials are spreading rumors that the coalition has entered into a cease-fire negotiation with the regime and that there's a third-party peace plan under consideration," he said. "Their goal is to try to convince the people of Iraq that the coalition does not intend to finish the job."
Even before the war began Rumsfeld held out the hope that Iraqis opposed to the regime would see that Saddam's demise was imminent and would choose to help break his iron rule. Rumsfeld said a small number of Iraqis have aided the allied cause, although he gave no details.
He said it should be no surprise that repressed Iraqis are reluctant to turn on their rulers.
"They are properly cautious, and I don't blame them," he said.
Rumsfeld suggested that Saddam may no longer be in control in Baghdad.
"Where are Iraq's leaders?" he asked. "The night before the ground war began, coalition forces launched a strike on a meeting of Iraq's senior command and control, and they have not been heard from since."