The Iraqi military is operating a key command center from the basement of the Al Rashid Hotel, which houses Western reporters and other foreigners in Baghdad, a senior Pentagon official said late last night.

"Obviously, because of the civilians associated with the hotel, it is not going to become a principal target," the official said. The Bush administration has demonstrated increasing sensitivity in recent days to complaints that the war is claiming too many civilian lives.

Fiber optic cables stretch from the hotel basement across either one or two bridges that span the Tigris River, and on to Iraqi forces in Kuwait, the Pentagon official said, adding that the system is not the "major means" by which Saddam Hussein is able to communicate with forces further south. However, the official said it is one of the most secure lines of communication still available to Iraqi military officials.

Although U.S. officials ideally would like to destroy as much of Hussein's communications ability as possible, the Pentagon official discounted the effects of not being able to bomb the site. Hussein "could set up some place else tomorrow and do as well" even if allied planes were to target the basement command bunker, he said.

At the same time, he said that if the facility in the Rashid Hotel were destroyed, Hussein would likely be forced, at least for a while, to depend more on high-frequency radio signals that are easily intercepted. However, even if the center and bridges were destroyed, it might be possible to continue using the fiber optic system by hooking up to it further south where the durable cable was unscathed.

The Rashid Hotel is perhaps best known as the site from which Peter Arnett and other Cable News Network journalists broadcast vivid pictures of the first night's bombing of the Iraqi capital. Although Arnett for some days was the only foreign journalist remaining in the city, others have since been granted visas and work from the hotel.