WASHINGTON – The American commander of the air war over Iraq said Saturday the Republican Guard has ceased to exist as a cohesive fighting force. The choice facing remnants: "We either kill them or they give up."
Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Moseley also said in a 90-minute telephone interview from his command post in Saudi Arabia that allied planes on Saturday began flying missions over the Iraqi capital that are designed to support any future U.S. ground invasion of downtown Baghdad.
He said U.S. planes are now on station over Baghdad 24 hours a day, ready to direct strike aircraft to their ground targets inside the city and to organize the air battle, a mission the military calls airborne forward air control. It is performed by a wide variety of Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps planes, including F-16 and F/A-18 fighters as well as A-10 attack planes.
The planes flying combat air support for U.S. ground troops in central Baghdad would be armed with a variety of weapons, including laser-guided bombs and "inert" bombs, such as concrete-filled bombs that are effective against fixed targets with less risk to nearby civilian structures.
U.S. officials hope the regime of Saddam Hussein will surrender or be overthrown internally before it becomes necessary to launch an all-out assault on the capital, home to 5 million people. Moseley and others have sought to convince Saddam's loyalists that their fate is sealed.
"There's no way out for these guys," he said.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, reported that the number of Americans killed in action in Iraq rose to 79, including six confirmed deaths from the downing of an Army Black Hawk helicopter Wednesday near Karbala. There are eight Americans missing in action and seven held by Iraq as prisoners of war.
Moseley spoke with reporters at the Pentagon as thousands of U.S. troops gathered on Baghdad's outskirts — the 3rd Infantry Division arriving from the southwest and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force from the southeast. Elements of the 3rd Infantry made a brief foray into Baghdad.
Moseley said the allies have such dominance of the airspace over Baghdad that a Predator drone reconnaissance plane flew over the city for 12 hours on Friday. He cautioned, however, that while Iraqi air defenses have not been effective against allied planes, they are still a threat.
Similarly, the three-star general said the Republican Guard that forms the backbone of Saddam Hussein's army is still putting up a fight, though not in large groups that could be effective.
"The Iraqi military as an organized defense in large combat formations doesn't really exist any more," he said. Some parts of the Republican Guard are trying to escape and regroup.
"We will continue to apply decisive pressure. We will continue to kill these guys until they give up," Moseley said.
When the war began March 20, Iraq was believed to have six Republican Guard divisions providing concentric rings of defense around Baghdad and Tikrit, Saddam's hometown north of the capital.
Days ago U.S. officials declared victory over two of those six divisions — the Medina armored and the Baghdad infantry. Some of the rest of them may have pulled back into Baghdad, officials said. Moseley said he believed that was futile because the Iraqi leadership's ability to command and control its forces has been so heavily damaged that they cannot organize a fight.
"The preponderance of the Republican Guard divisions that were outside of Baghdad are now dead," he said. "I find it interesting that folks say we're softening them up. We're not softening them up. We're killing them."
Moseley directs the air portion of the Iraq war from a command post known as the Combined Air Operations Center, a sprawling complex at Prince Sultan Air Base, south of the Saudi capital. He uses a range of intelligence from air and space sensors to plot the direction of the air campaign using about 2,000 aircraft flying from five aircraft carriers and about 30 land bases in and around Iraq.
He made other points about progress in the air campaign:
— The Iraqi air force has not flown a single mission in the war. Moseley said U.S. warplanes have bombed Iraqi airfields so effectively that there are only a "handful" of landing surfaces available to Iraqi planes anywhere in the country.
— Some targets in southern Iraq that allied warplanes planned to attack in the opening hours of the war were taken off the strike list because allied ground forces had already entered Iraqi territory. The ground forces moved earlier than planned in order to secure the southern oil fields, he said.
— Air power is supporting U.S. and Kurdish forces in northern Iraq in a wide variety of ways, including providing close air support for Kurdish ground troops fighting Iraqi government forces.