The Iraqi minister of defense also said he expects that Saddam Hussein’s forces were readying for fierce street battles in the capital.
“We set up our [main] defenses in Baghdad. It will be no surprise that in five to 10 days they will be able to encircle all our positions in Baghdad. They have the capability to do so,” Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmed told a news conference in Baghdad.
“The enemy must come inside Baghdad, and that will be its grave,” he added.
In Baghdad, the defense minister said the Iraqi military plan would rely on bloody street-to-street and house-to-house fighting.
“We feel that this war must be prolonged so the enemy pays a high price,” he said.
In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the Republican Guard had already created security “rings” around Baghdad and Saddam’s birthplace in the northern city of Tikrit.
President Bush, speaking at a news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, said he would continue the war until all of its objectives, including the toppling of Saddam’s regime, are complete.
“This isn’t a matter of timetables; it’s a matter of victory. And the Iraqi people have got … to know that they will be liberated, and Saddam Hussein will be removed, no matter how long it takes,” the president said.
New York Times reporter John Burns, still reporting from Baghdad, told the NewsHour Thursday that he witnessed a night of “astonishing” bombing by coalition forces around the city and spoke of what he observed at the Iraqi defense minister’s briefing.
“First of all, he [Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmed] acknowledged that they could, as he put it, encircle Baghdad or great parts of Baghdad, he says, in as little as five days,” Burns said.
“That suggests a realistic assessment of the bombing that is now going on in the outer defenses of the city some ten or fifteen miles from where I’m sitting. In fact, he says, ‘Bring it on, Bush, we’re ready for you.’ He says they will learn such as a lesson as the Americans and British will never forget. He said that they will fight street to street, that the battle will be extremely bloody.”
Dozens of powerful explosions rocked the capital shortly after 11 p.m. local time (3 p.m. EST). Correspondents in Baghdad reported a series of major explosions in and around the Ministry of Information, a central telephone exchange and suspected locations of Republican Guard.
Iraq’s health minister said the continued bombardment of Baghdad was part of a deliberate campaign to target civilians.
“They are targeting the human beings in Iraq to decrease their morale,” Iraqi Health Minister Omeed Medhat Mubarak said. “They are not discriminating, differentiating.”
He announced Wednesday’s civilian death toll in Baghdad was 36, and said a total of 350 civilians had died since the U.S.-led war on Iraq began a week ago.