BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraq's defense minister said on Sunday that American forces driving north toward Baghdad had engaged in a pattern of "stops and swerves" around Iraqi defenses in cities and towns along the way but that they would eventually have to "pay a heavy price in blood" by fighting for Baghdad if they wanted to topple Saddam Hussein.
The warning by Gen. Sultan Hashim, delivered at an evening news conference, came only hours before an intensification of American bombing and missile attacks on the Iraqi capital. After a mostly quiet period in central Baghdad since the ferocious bombardment on Friday night, a volley of cruise missiles began slamming into key government and military buildings on both sides of the Tigris River early Monday.
The missiles, striking at intervals of a few minutes, sent shock waves for miles, and clouds of dust and smoke could be seen rising from some of the targets.
As the war entered its fifth day, events over the weekend appeared to have moved the war much closer to its climactic phase, the battle for Baghdad. With some American advance units passing the city of Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, tensions in the Iraqi leadership appeared to be rising, along with vows to meet the American troops with fierce resistance.
Hashim outlined the Iraqi strategy for countering the Americans in what amounted to a lengthy military briefing. With an officer holding a pointer against a large military map at the news conference in the Sheraton Hotel, the general said Iraqi forces had held their own in virtually every battle with the Americans so far.
The American advances, he said, were taking place largely because American commanders had chosen not to fight for control of cities and towns like Basra, Nasiriya and Samawa in the Euphrates River valley on their drive north from Kuwait, but to outflank them and leave battle-worthy Iraqi units behind them.
That strategy, Hashim implied, was only putting off the moment when American troops would have to fight Iraqi forces for control of the principal population centers and, above all, Baghdad.
On a day when American forces suffered their worst casualties so far in fighting in the southern city of Nasiriya, the general asserted that "the enemy, every time he has been surprised by our resistance, stops and swerves."
Then he added a mocking choice for American commanders as they confront the last part of their drive to the capital, beyond Najaf to Baghdad. "Perhaps they can go on to northern Iraq," he said. "They can even go on to Europe. But in the end, to achieve their objective, they will have to come to the city. And the city will fight them. They say a land fights with its own people."
When the battle for the Iraqi capital begins, he said, American advantages in high-technology weaponry and American commanders' preference for attacking the enemy with long-range weapons to avoid casualties would be minimized, and the Iraqis' strengths, of endurance, willpower and a readiness to fight for their own territory, would prevail.
New York Times News Service By early today, the United States had asserted that preference yet again, launching cruise missile attacks on Baghdad. They were nowhere near the intensity of the Friday strikes, when hundreds of cruise missiles hit in and near Baghdad, along with heavy bombing, devastating many of the palaces and other buildings that have been symbolic of Mr. Hussein's rule.
One missile hit a building with a gigantic explosion only a few hundred yards from the Palestine Hotel on the east bank of the Tigris, where about 150 foreign journalists are staying. From a hotel balcony, the target appeared to have been in the vicinity of the Iraqi air defense headquarters, which appeared to have been heavily damaged but not destroyed in the Friday attacks.
Since the Friday attacks, the air raid sirens and intense Iraqi antiaircraft fire that met each new wave of American aircraft have been sharply diminished, to the point that there was virtually no ground-to-air fire visible by Sunday night.