Iraqi power structure seems to remain intact

Coordinated defense tactics indicate someone is in charge, but is it Hussein?

US officials still aren't entirely sure about the state of Saddam Hussein's health. But 10 days after a salvo of missiles intended for the Iraqi leadership slammed into a Baghdad bunker, one thing seems clear: Someone in Iraq is still in control, and fighting back.

The political structure that has kept Mr. Hussein in power - the Baath Party and its associated inner networks of militia and paramilitary units - does not appear to have cracked under the concerted US assault. It is these forces, more than the vaunted Republican Guards, that have been at the center of Baghdad's hit-and-run counterattack strategy.

The US and its allies are correspondingly adjusting their own military objectives. British forces, for example, destroyed the Baath Party headquarters in Basra on Wednesday - a target that commanders had probably originally intended to leave alone. Baghdad's Baath Party central building has now also been hit.

The apparent message? "If we can take out the political heart, then the [Iraqi] people will be free to make their own choices," says retired Brig. Gen. John Reppert, a military strategist at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.

In the immediate aftermath of last week's attack at a site where intelligence information indicated Hussein, possibly his sons, and other top Iraqi officials were meeting, some in the US government were confident that at the least they had dealt a heavy blow.

One US official privy to the strike's details said last week that the information that led to the attack was top-notch, "the best we're able to put together." Subsequent reports have fingered someone in Hussein's inner circle as a possible CIA source.

But as the days wore on and Iraq apparently reconstituted its command-and-control apparatus, this official has sounded less certain about how much damage the strike really caused.

It's still possible that senior Iraqis were killed or injured in the attack. But the unconfirmed reports now circulating in the media - that neighbors described Hussein leaving on a stretcher after the bunker was destroyed, that a Russian doctor was hurriedly summoned from Moscow - may just be rumors.

US intelligence has no information proving or disproving them, says the US government official. Indeed, US intelligence has no information proving or disproving whether Hussein is alive. "I would be very careful about chasing this doctor-to-the-bunker story," cautions the official.

Meanwhile, Iraq's actions appear to reflect some kind of continued strategic direction. Iraqi units are not milling about aimlessly. Nor are they repeating their 1991 Gulf War attempts at fighting set-piece battles - at least, so far. Rather, Iraq has shifted to a guerrilla-type defense, harrying US supply lines and forcing US and British commanders to in essence turn back and secure areas they had hoped to bypass.

"They're mounting as effective a defense as just about anybody could put up against the US," says Michael Corgan, a retired Navy commander and professor of international relations at Boston University.

The resistance is surprising in part because it is virtually suicidal. Much of it appears to be spearheaded by fedayeen and paramilitary units, troops that have long served Hussein and the Baath Party as a sort of inner bodyguard. They are ambushing much larger and better armed US units in an effort to slow them. In return they are often decimated.

These Iraqis must have decided that if their leader is toppled they will be treated harshly by the US, or by Iraqis they have long oppressed. "You have all those people who were involved in Saddam's network who now are faced with two bad choices," says General Reppert. "And the one they're choosing is to continue to fight."

From a strategic standpoint, Iraq's choice of defense almost concedes defeat in major battles. The most committed troops at Hussein's command are being chewed up far from Baghdad. But the move makes sense if seen as an extension of Hussein's diplomatic strategy of delay and retreat. He, or whoever remains in charge, is attempting to put off the day of reckoning, hoping outside political events will eventually stymie the US.

"Their hope, I think, is to force outside states ... to force a negotiated settlement to the war and not have it end in an outright military victory for the US," says Mr. Corgan.

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