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As U.S. Bombers Pound Baghdad, Iraq Talks of Defeat for Invaders

By John F. Burns

THE NEW YORK TIMES -- BAGHDAD, IRAQ

With U.S. units pushing closer to Baghdad and Saddam Hussein’s presidential compound once again under relentless bombardment, the Iraqi leadership on Monday put on a show of redoubled defiance and promised U.S. troops “death in the desert.”

When Iraqi government ministers emerged Monday to spread their message of doom for the coalition war effort, there was something different about them -- something even more strident, more polemical, more pugnacious, and more edgy than usual.

As the ministers told it, this reflected new successes for Iraqi fighters amid the palm trees and grainfields of the Euphrates river valley, the center of the battlefield for the U.S. troops advancing from the south, but it was not difficult to think that this might not be the full story.

“The Americans are telling a lot of lies; lying is the golden rule of the American administration,” said Naji Sabri, Iraq’s foreign minister. “We shall turn the desert into a big graveyard for American and British troops,” he said.

The British, Sabri said, already had graveyards here from Iraqi uprisings against their colonial rule, “and now they will have other graveyards, where they will be joined by their friends the Americans. Those Americans who will not surrender to us will face nothing but death in the desert, or else they will have to flee back to their puppet regime in Kuwait.”

At times during the news conferences at the Palestine Hotel, the building shook from the sharp detonation of a bomb striking. The Iraqi officials, unperturbed, or at least determined to be seen as being unperturbed, affected not to notice.

To Iraqi loyalists, this no doubt seemed like defiance of the invader at its best. To others, there was the thought that the insistent indifference to the bombs might be a metaphor for something else -- perhaps an unwillingness to look at matters in any way that could presage an outcome other than victory for Saddam and those around him, like these officials, whose prospects, and perhaps lives, depend on Saddam’s somehow confounding the allied onslaught.

One difference was that Sabri and the information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, made virtually no reference to Saddam, although they stood beside a large, flatteringly youthful-looking portrait of him that dominated the cramped media room at the hotel. Another was that their remarks took place against the intrusive, off-stage percussions of the American bombing and the sporadic Iraqi anti-aircraft fire that, so far, appears not to have downed a single American warplane over Baghdad, despite bomb and missile strikes that exceed 1,000 since the initial attacks a week ago on Thursday.

Nor did the Iraqi officials mention U.S. units that Monday pushed as far north as Hindiyah, a town on the Euphrates that is barely 50 miles from Baghdad.

Instead, al-Sahhaf, the information minister, spoke of a new Iraqi offensive over the previous 36 hours that had, he said, brought disaster to American advance parties seeking to outflank Iraqi forces by moving off the main roads north to Baghdad and setting up camouflaged hideouts in the desert. From these hideouts, he said, the Americans had harassed Iraqi units from the rear, and sought to create the impression that the Americans were further forward and in greater strength than they were.