WASHINGTON -- U.S. and allied air forces have begun to redirect their operations against Iraq and mount heavy bombing raids on troop concentrations in and near Kuwait.
Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed the expected spread of the air campaign southward from the Baghdad area yesterday after he and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had conferred with President Bush at Camp David.
He did not, however, give any indication whether immediate, heavier pounding of the elite Republican Guard armored forces and lesser Iraqi troop formations foretold an early resort to U.S. ground attacks.
"There has begun a shift from the first set of targets that were up in the Baghdad area as well as the airfield and the air defense complex," the general said here, "and we'll now begin concentrating on the Republican Guard and some of the forces in [the] theater."
The Kuwaiti Theater of Operations, as defined at the Pentagon, includes Kuwait and a portion of Iraq extending to the key communications and logistics area around the port of Basra, where the Republican Guard is concentrated.
Asked whether this brought ground combat closer, General Powell said only, "I wouldn't comment on that or future operations."
Aging Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft have been striking Iraqi ground forces in Kuwait since the U.S. assault began, according to pooled press reports from Saudi Arabia.
General Powell's brief comment seemed to indicate that a powerful expansion of this effort, with B-52 bombers and various strike aircraft armed with "smart" bombs, could now be expected.
While he did not put it that way, he appeared to suggest a linking of the "strategic" air campaign with a new "tactical" campaign against Iraqi foot soldiers.
Military officials indicated yesterday that the strategic campaign -- against the Iraqi Air Force, chemical weapons facilities and command communications -- was going about as planned but was not over.
Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Kelly, General Powell's director of operations, said at a Pentagon news briefing that Iraq's air defenses had been "significantly" weakened and were unable to function effectively in major portions of the country.
U.S. bomb damage assessment -- based on photos and other data from bombed targets -- has started to determine what targets had to be struck again.
But the generals' comments here and at briefings in Saudi Arabia indicated that allied forces could now count on air superiority wherever they might choose to operate over Iraq.
They could therefore concentrate on trying to smash ground forces without fear of interference by Iraqi planes.
Commanders did not appear to be under any rush to begin ground attacks with the huge U.S. and allied troops now deployed and, in some cases, still arriving.
U.S. military analysts said privately that they believed ground attacks would start when commanders were satisfied that the air campaigns had fully gained their objectives, including destruction of supplies, ammunition and communications of Iraqi army units in and near Kuwait.
By that time, commanders will know whether and to what extent a ground campaign is necessary. Continuing success in the air, several military sources said, might delay rather than advance the time for any use of ground forces against Iraqi troops dug in along the Saudi-Kuwaiti border.
These analysts argued that there were neither political nor military reasons to rush into a ground offensive.
They perceived no breakdown in domestic or international political support for the war, and surely there was no messy Iraqi counteroffensive calling for quick and bloody escalation.