WASHINGTON - U.S. and British troops now control more than one-third of Iraq and nearly all of its airspace, senior defense officials said yesterday, bristling at suggestions that the war against Saddam Hussein hasn't gone as expected even as they acknowledged that difficult days lie ahead.
As fighting continued across a swath of Iraq and an explosion in Baghdad left at least 50 people dead, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his top generals said they were pleased with the war's progress and denied they were caught off guard by stiff resistance.
Skirmishes flared around strategic cities south of Baghdad, as U.S. forces prepared for an assault on Republican Guard units arrayed outside the capital and enormous convoys of bumper-to-bumper armor pressed farther northward. Apache helicopter gunships attacked Republican Guard units somewhere near Karbala, in the first major action by the 101st Airborne Division during the war. Two of the helicopters crashed on landing after returning from their mission, but none of the crews were injured.
"The conventional battle, if you like, with the Republican Guard is not too far away," said Gen. Michael Jackson, head of the British army.
There were reports that Iraqi paramilitary units were firing artillery at civilians who were trying to flee the country's second-largest city, Basra. Refugees from the southern city said Fedayeen Saddam units were terrorizing people in an effort to make them fight for Hussein's regime.
A British officer outside Basra, Capt. Richard Coates of the First Fusiliers Battle Group, said that, contrary to widespread reports, his unit had seen very little evidence of a reported uprising in Basra by anti-Hussein civilians. At most, he said, there have been 40 or 50 people on street corners, "about what you see in London when the pubs close."
Later, the U.S. Central Command in Qatar said that two F-15E Strike Eagles destroyed a two-story building in Basra where about 200 Iraqi regime paramilitary members were believed to be meeting.
As military action continued across Iraq, the war of words grew more ominous yesterday. Rumsfeld accused Syria of sending military supplies to Iraqi forces and said such shipments amount to "hostile acts."
The defense secretary said the United States had intelligence information that shipments of military supplies - including night-vision goggles - had been crossing the border from Syria into Iraq. Such equipment, he said, is "a direct threat to the lives of coalition forces."
Rumsfeld's blunt assertion included a warning to Iran to keep Iranian-supported Iraqi exiles out of the fighting in Iraq.
The defense secretary charged that the military wing of an Iraqi exile group based in Tehran had sent fighters, known as the Badr corps, into Iraq. He said the fighters, numbering in the "hundreds," posed a danger to the U.S.-led forces in Iraq.
"We will hold the Iranian government responsible for their actions," Rumsfeld said.
Asked whether a similar warning to hold the Syrian government responsible for the shipments to Iraq meant that the United States was threatening military action against Syria, Rumsfeld replied: "I'm saying exactly what I said. It was carefully phrased."
Syria rejected the accusation, calling it an effort to cover up U.S. crimes against Iraqi civilians. President Bashar Assad has condemned the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as "clear occupation and a flagrant aggression against a United Nations member state."
Amid rising questions about the planning that went into the invasion, it seemed, at times, as if the U.S. military was at war with itself.
Officials in Washington and in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, where the American command is based, disputed the assessment of the commander of Army forces in the gulf, who acknowledged Thursday that the war is likely to take longer than originally thought.
The commander, Lt. Gen. William Wallace, told journalists traveling with the 101st Airborne in Iraq that "the enemy we're fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against." Wallace was referring to the paramilitary forces who have targeted U.S. and British forces.
"We knew they were here," said the general, whose remarks were reported yesterday. "But we did not know how they would fight."
Rumsfeld professed to be unfamiliar with the general's remarks and said the war effort is "about where we expected to be." He added, "I suppose everyone can have their own view."
Wallace, who commands V Corps, which oversees all Army units in Iraq, said that delays caused by three days of sandstorms had also forced the invasion troops to pause on their way to Baghdad. He did not say how much longer he thought it would take to defeat the Iraqis.
In saying that the effort to topple Hussein's regime could take longer than initially thought, Wallace became the highest-ranking officer to state publicly what other active and retired generals have been saying for some time.
These critics have said the expectations of some civilian and military leaders in the U.S. government - that the shock of an all-out American-led assault could cause Hussein's regime to fold quickly - have proved false.
Some administration officials had spoken privately of a war that would be over within two weeks. Vice President Dick Cheney, asked last fall whether a war against Iraq would be a "a cakewalk," replied: "I don't think it would be that tough a fight."
In his remarks at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld appeared to blame the news media, and by implication his own decision to let journalists travel with U.S. invasion forces, for the growing perception that the fighting in Iraq could be protracted.
"We have seen mood swings in the media, from highs to lows to highs and back again, sometimes in a single 24-hour period," he said. Rumsfeld added that the "massive volume" of coverage and "breathless reports" on television news "can seem to be somewhat disorienting."
He was followed by Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said that 35 percent to 40 percent of Iraq was no longer under the control of Hussein's regime. Much of that area, though, is lightly populated. And in many of the larger towns and cities, U.S. and British forces have yet to gain control.
U.S. military officials have increasingly referred to fedayeen "death squads" to help explain why many Iraqi civilians do not appear to be cheering the efforts of U.S.-led troops to topple Hussein's regime.
"They have deployed death squads into Iraqi cities," Rumsfeld said, "to terrorize civilians and to try to prevent them from welcoming coalition forces, to try to compel the regular army to fight by putting guns to their head."
"These death squads," Rumsfeld added, "report to the Hussein family directly."
President Bush stepped up his accusations that Hussein's forces have committed war crimes against both Iraqi civilians and U.S. and British prisoners. Those responsible, the president warned, will be "hunted relentlessly and judged severely."
Bush spoke expansively about the war for the fourth day in a row after having stayed mostly out of sight in the opening days.
"We're inflicting severe damage on enemy forces," he insisted, speaking to a receptive audience of veterans groups at the White House.
"We refuse to leave the Iraqi people in slavery under Saddam Hussein," Bush said, adding that "every Iraqi atrocity has confirmed the justice and urgency of our cause."
Inside Baghdad, an explosion struck early today in the area near the Information Ministry. Heavy fighting occurred in the Euphrates River city of Nasiriyah, where four Marines were reported missing. Since the fighting began, according to official figures, 29 Americans have died, 16 are missing and 7 are prisoners of war; Britain has reported 22 deaths.
In northern Iraq, airstrikes have focused not only on Iraqi military targets but also on the Ansar al-Islam, a radical group that U.S. officials say is linked to al-Qaida terrorists. U.S. forces used an airfield, which was secured by members of the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade.
And early this morning, a missile, apparently fired from southern Iraq, exploded in the ocean near a shopping mall in Kuwait City, the closest a missile has come to that city since the war in Iraq began. The attack caused no injuries and little damage.
Sun staff writers Paul West, David L. Greene and Mark Matthews contributed to this article.