RIYADH, SAUDIA ARABIA — RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- In a change in U.S. military strategy, senior commanders considering a possible offensive action against Iraq now favor a slower, more methodical assault on dug-in Iraqi defenders instead of a rapid, all-out battle as soon as war begins.
The new approach, outlined by high-ranking officers here, reflects concerns that immediately launch ing a comprehensive air and ground offensive against what are now well-fortified Iraqi positions could result in unacceptable losses of American lives.
At the same time, the U.S. commanders said their revised thinking signaled a new confidence that the United States had passed a critical milestone and had in place sufficient military power to seek to control the pace of any battle.
The new accounts of a potentially slower pace of warfare suggest thatU.S. planning has undergone a significant revision in response to three months of massive military deployments by both sides and the increasingly defensive nature of Iraq's forces in Kuwait.
Until recently, said Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, the Air Force commander in the region, the United States would have been forced to fight "as hard as you can as long as you can, and hope [the enemy] runs out of enthusiasm."
But in what he described as a "whole new ballgame," the three-star general said in a 90-minute interview that the United States had gained "the initiative" and thus could slow the pace of battle in an effort to minimize U.S. casualties.
"Instead of achieving success in one day or two days," General Horner said, when asked how the United States might seek to overcome Iraqi defenses, "you nibble at him. You take four days o six days -- or longer."
Another senior officer, Maj. Gen. J. H. Binford Peay III, commander of the Army's 101st Air Assault Division, said in a separate interview that he shared the view that any U.S. offensive was now more likely to be a prolonged endeavor. "Clearly, now, with [Iraq's] ability to dig in and defend, the mission is just unquestionably harder, I think," he said.
The projections, supported by other senior officers, contrast sharply with previous indications of how the United States might fight if its prolonged military standoff against Iraq turned into a shooting war.
Until now, officers had emphasized the speed and ferocity of possible combat, with a Marine Corps general vowing early in the crisis to meet an assault by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's forces with "the most violent five minutes of his life."
With the threat of an Iraqi attack now greatly diminished, the new caution appears to reflect a recognition of the difficulties of driving Iraq from Kuwait if its forces remain dug into trenches equipped with stocks of napalm rigged to be set aflame in case of war.
In discussing the challenges of such an offensive, the U.S. commanders stressed that no decision had been made to mount such an attack. Their mission remained strictly defensive, they emphasized.
The officials also cautioned that their thinking about an offensive operation could change, depending on the mission assigned to them. "Tell me what the political job is, then I'll tell you how to do it," General Horner said. "Right now, the job of the forces here is to deter and defend."
But they made it clear that if President Bush were to order an offensive action, the high human cost of attacking front-line Iraqi positions could require Army and Marine forces to stand back for a number of days until a prolonged aerial assault weakened the Iraqi defenses.
Those defenses include dug-in lines of more than 100,000 soldiers along the Kuwaiti coastline to defend against a possible amphibious landing and more than 150,000 troops along Kuwait's southern border.
Most are arrayed behind rows of razor wire and mine fields in trenches reinforced with steel mesh or wire.
zTC Indications that napalm and other petroleum products have been moved to the trenches have caused concern that the Iraqis might be prepared to use a defense of fire.
With an immediate ground attack against such barriers certain to result in heavy casualties, a senior U.S. officer said commanders would favor a range of more time-consuming "stand-back" tactics if the Iraqi forces remained "hunkered down."
Among those tactics, General Horner and others said, would be a methodical bombardment from high-altitude B-52 aircraft designed to destroy enemy tanks or bury them in blast waves of sand.
In addition, as part of the "nibbling campaign," U.S. warplanes might focus their attack on the Iraqi front lines rather than risk casualties of their own against strongholds that include surface-to-air missile sites and other formidable defenses.
The purpose of what the officers said could be days of aerial bombardment along Iraqi front lines in advance of any ground assault would be to force dug-in Iraqi tanks into the open, where they would be vulnerable to U.S. tanks, planes and troops.
"When the enemy relocates, then I got him, because then he's in uncovered territory," said General Horner.
But, the Air Force commander conceded, as long as Iraqi forces remained in prepared postions in which their tanks were sheltered by as much as 2 feet of sand, "that's a difficult nut to crack."