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U.S. battles paramilitaries -- and questions

Basra residents flee the city Friday. British officials say Iraqi militias fired at escaping civilians.
Basra residents flee the city Friday. British officials say Iraqi militias fired at escaping civilians.

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More than 1,000 civilians trying to flee Basra came under fire.
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Some Pentagon officials concede that the Saddam Fedayeen was underestimated.
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DOHA, Qatar (CNN) -- As coalition ground troops pressured Iraqi forces from the north, south and west -- and smoke hung over Baghdad from the latest round of coalition bombing -- U.S. war planners on Friday said they had not underestimated the strength of Iraq's Fedayeen Saddam and other paramilitary groups.

Coalition forces were "inflicting punishing blows" against the paramilitary forces. Special operations aircraft destroyed two paramilitary headquarters overnight, according to Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks at a briefing Friday at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar.

At the Central Command briefing, Brooks was asked repeatedly whether U.S. forces were prepared for the Iraqi tactics, and about reported comments from the U.S. Army's senior ground commander in Iraq.

The New York Times quoted Lt. Gen. William Wallace, the commander of V Corps, as saying, "The enemy we're fighting is different from the one we'd war-gamed against, because of the paramilitary forces. We knew they were here, but we did not know how they would fight." "War-gamed" is a phrase for military planning.

Brooks said that the Iraqi paramilitary groups, which he called "terrorist-like death squads," were taken into consideration and that their presence had not changed the overall plan.

"That's what we're talking about at this level, at the CentCom level," Brooks said. "There is a different view on planet Earth, if you will, as we describe it; the closer you get to the line, the more precise the realities are and we take all of this into account from all of our commanders."

Brooks said the Fedayeen have changed into and out of uniform; used civilians, including women and children, as human shields; and threatened to execute entire families if the men did not fight coalition forces.

"I don't think that we have necessarily underestimated it and I'm certain we accounted for enemy action. The specifics of the action -- no one can ever predict exactly how battle will unfold. We can't even completely predict how our own actions will unfold, but I think we can remain confident we have a good grip of what's going on here," Brooks said.

CNN's Martin Savidge, embedded with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, said Fedayeen fighters were constantly trying to disrupt the coalition force's vital supply line from the south to the front line.

The Marines, he said, have begun sending Combined Armor and Anti-Tank teams into towns and villages along the route, searching for the Iraqi fighters and warning civilians not to aid them.

British forces outside Basra said a militia group fired machine guns and mortars at civilians Friday who were fleeing Basra over a bridge toward waiting British troops.

CNN's Diana Muriel, embedded with the British Army Desert Rats outside Basra, said more than 1,000 people, women and children accompanied by men, tried to make it across the bridge from the north, militia-held side to the southern, British-held side.

The civilians scattered in panic, Muriel reported, and between 200 and 300 fled back to the north side, and the remainder made it safely to the south. Several people were injured.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz admitted later Friday that military officials may have underestimated the scope of deceptive tactics Iraqi fighters have employed against coalition forces and Iraqi civilians.

"We probably did underestimate the willingness of this regime to commit war crimes," he said. "I don't think we anticipated so many people who would pretend to surrender and then shoot. I don't think we anticipated the number of execution squads within Basra."

President Bush, meanwhile, has "some level of frustration with the press corps" for accounts questioning the war plan, a senior administration official said Friday. The official says Bush finds it "silly" that such skepticism and questions are being raised just days into a conflict he says is going well. (Full story)

The senior official said Friday that Bush had no doubts about the battle plan or frustration with developments on the ground in Iraq.

CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King contributed to this report.

EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN's policy is to not report information that puts operational security at risk.

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