ARLINGTON, Va. — The war in Iraq is proceeding “superbly” and “on track” despite a steady stream of grim reports from the battlefield, senior defense officials said Monday afternoon.

“Some people think extraordinary progress has been made,” Victoria Clarke, undersecretary of defense for public affairs, told reporters here in an afternoon briefing. “Some would say historic.”

Clarke sought to minimize the day’s negative reports from the battlefield, which included more news of U.S. troops killed or wounded in action and almost nonstop skirmishing.

Some of the fighting was ongoing in territory senior defense officials had already characterized as “secure” — in particular the Rumaila oil fields in southeastern Iraq.

But Clarke cautioned that the campaign is only in its early days, and that media reports from Iraq show “only a slice … of the big picture.”

“One thing you do expect in any conflict is that bad things happen,” Clarke said.

She blasted what she called “the despicable behavior” of Iraqi troops who she said are employing guerrilla tactics against U.S. forces, including faking surrender, dressing in civilian clothes and mixing with civilian populations before attacking, and even possibly posing as journalists on the battlefield.

“Some liken these [actions] to terrorism,” Clarke said, adding that these “most serious violations of the law of war” have “in no way stopped the progress of coalition forces.”

Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, vice director for Operations on the Joint Staff, said that U.S. forces will not change their rules of engagement — which do not allow them to fire on surrendering Iraqi soldiers — to anticipate the guerrilla tactics, even if the rules make it more dangerous for U.S. troops.

“I don’t think you can change the basic humanity of American soldiers,” McChrystal said. “I think it’s important to make it easy and safe for Iraqi soldiers to surrender.”

McChrystal joined Clarke in telling reporters that the war is going as planned, firefights notwithstanding.

“If you put it in perspective … if you step back and look at the bigger picture, it’s going superbly,” McChrystal said.

U.S. ground forces “are now more than 200 miles into Iraqi territory” and were meeting with “sporadic resistance” as they continued to move towards Baghdad, he said.

Working to “prepare the battlefield,” or pave the way for the ground troops to advance, U.S. aircraft flew more than 1,000 sorties Sunday, bombing Republic Guard positions, command and control facilities, and other key targets, McChrystal said.

On Monday coalition forces engaged the “Medina” forces, “one of the best Republic Guard divisions and one of the most powerful,” McChrystal said.

But all of those contacts were by air, McChrystal said — “to my knowledge, we have not gotten in direct contact with the Republican Guard.”

The fiercest fighting that U.S. ground troops are likely to see in this war will happen when they directly encounter the Republic Guard, which Saddam has deployed in at least two rings around Baghdad and inside the city, intelligence analysts say.

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