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U.S., Iraqis still holding secret surrender talks

CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar — The commander of the war against Iraq, in his first public appearance since the assault began, said Saturday that discussions continue with military and civilian leaders about surrendering.

Gen. Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command that oversees the operation, also said he had "no idea" of the location of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, an apparent target of the strike in Baghdad that began the war.

Information about Saddam's whereabouts would not alter his war plans, Franks said.

"This is not about a single personality," he said. "This is about the control over a country for decades in a way that has been threatening to the peace-loving peoples of the world."

Advancing troops have not encountered weapons of mass destruction, Franks said.

"There is no doubt that the regime of Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction . . . and as this operation continues, those weapons will be identified, found, along with the people who have produced them and who guard them," Franks said.

Franks praised his troops as magnificent, asserted that the success of the campaign is not in doubt and mourned the soldiers who have died.

"My heart and the prayers of this coalition go out to the families of those who have already made the ultimate sacrifice," he said. "Because of the courage and the dedication of these heroes, the mission of Operation Iraqi Freedom will be achieved."

Speaking at Camp As Sayliyah, the base in the Persian Gulf sheikdom of Qatar from which he commands the invasion, Franks said the operation now under way is one of unprecedented sophistication and flexibility.

"This will be a campaign unlike any other in history," he said, "a campaign characterized by shock, by surprise, by flexibility, by the employment of precise munitions on a scale never before seen, and by the application of overwhelming force."

Franks made his remarks at his press briefing held in a warehouse for military vehicles that was recently converted to a media center. About 400 journalists from around the world attended. But he offered few details of the operation's progress and said little that was new. He spent much of the news conference echoing comments already made by President Bush or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The dearth of fresh information was in part a function of Franks' taciturn personality and his determination to avoid letting slip any detail that could jeopardize the mission or risk the lives of his troops.

But it was also a manifestation of the dramatic turn that news coverage of the war has taken. With live reports from journalists traveling with various military units, television viewers have been able to watch much of the war unfold before their eyes.

The general spoke on a new stage with high-tech plasma screens erected to provide images of bomb drops and other action. Some bomb footage was shown at the briefing, along with video of Iraqi border posts being destroyed and a photograph of about 700 Iraqi soldiers lined up to show they wanted to surrender, as they had been instructed in leaflets air-dropped onto the country.

But in this war such footage pales in comparison to the real-time images being broadcast almost continuously by various television networks.

Franks took pains to emphasize that the invasion is being conducted by a coalition of nations rather than by the United States alone. Appearing with him on the stage were commanders from the United Kingdom, Australia, Denmark and the Netherlands. In what may be a reflection of the way this coalition is structured, however, the other officers did not speak but served instead as a backdrop while Franks made his presentation.

The operation makes use of great coordination between special operations forces, ground troops and air forces, with each group sometimes supporting others. The war plan, he said, is "built on a flexibility beyond any I have seen in my service."

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, who took over part of the briefing, said coalition forces were working to prevent the Persian Gulf from being mined, so that humanitarian aid for the people of Iraq will be able to get through. He said coalition forces were also securing Iraqi oil wells to prevent their destruction.

On other matters, Franks said:

— Coalition officials are having "ongoing dialogue" with a number of senior Iraqi officials, both in and out of uniform. He said those talks would continue in the "hours and the days ahead."

— No allied aircraft have been damaged in battle.

— "There is a certain confusion going on within the (Iraqi) regime. I believe command and control is not what is advertised on Iraqi television."

— Dealing with weapons of mass destruction, he said, "lies in front of us rather than work that we have already accomplished."

— Iraqis are welcoming U.S.-led forces as they arrive, and he hopes that will also be the case when the allied takes Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. "We expect to work with Basra and the citizens in Basra," he said.

— Between 1,000 and 2,000 Iraqi prisoners of war are in custody. "Thousands more have laid down their weapons and have gone home," he said.

And he said he is satisfied with the progress of the war so far.

"Our troops are performing as we would expect - magnificently," Franks said. "And indeed the outcome is not in doubt."