DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- One week into the war with Iraq, allied troops and air units are holding rehearsals for a grand pincer movement designed to smash Iraq's elite Republican Guard and surround 550,000 Iraqis in the combat zone.
Key to the plan, U.S. commanders say, is a strategy to "peel the onion," as one put it: send aircraft to strip away successive layers of Iraqi defenses before ground forces maneuver around and cut off enemy concentrations.
In recent days, U.S. commanders have moved powerful armored units to the western end of a 200-mile-long front that extends from the Persian Gulf on the east to a point on the Saudi-Iraqi border to the west.
From that western end, the troops would be poised to punch across the Iraqi border, skirting Iraqi defenses, then sweeping east toward the southern Iraqi city of Basra or into Kuwait itself.
Such a maneuver would bring them quickly into combat with the 100,000-strong Republican Guard, held along Iraq's southern border with Kuwait as a reserve to counterpunch against any U.S. thrust into Kuwait from the south.
At the eastern end of the 200-mile front, commanders have positioned two heavily reinforced Marine divisions and a British tank brigade -- more than 75,000 soldiers and hundreds of tanks.
Those forces are laying plans to drive up the coast into Kuwait to join up with some 30,000 Marines expected to use traditional landing craft and high-speed air cushion hovercraft to launch an amphibious attack from Navy ships in the gulf.
If the allied air and ground assaults succeed, then hundreds of thousands of Iraqi troops will find themselves stranded in the desert without air cover or long-range artillery protection and cut off from reinforcements, commanders, ammunition, food and water.
"Any ground troops that loses its cover is going to eventually get demoralized," said Marine pilot Col. J. Vesely of Chicago.
Allied military commanders are keeping the details and timing of their plan secret.
But its broad outlines, which should come as no surprise to Iraq, are reflected in dispatches filed by reporters traveling with American troops under military escort. The dispatches are subject to review by military censors.
According to the dispatches, nine U.S. divisions with 315,000 American and allied troops and 1,200 tanks are now dug in less than 25 miles from the Kuwaiti border across the 200-mile front.
Those forces include three armored divisions, two mechanized infantry divisions, two Marine divisions and two airborne divisions plus smaller armored regiments and engineer and supply units. Another division is being held in reserve.
Part of the "peel-the-onion" strategy already has started, with Air Force and Marine bombers hitting Soviet-made SAM-8 and French-made Roland anti-aircraft missile batteries in Kuwait, the best in Iraq's arsenal.
Air Force A-10 "tank-killers" and Marine Harriers are pounding Iraq's best long-range artillery, French-made computer-controlled 155mm howitzers on tracks.
A-10s and Harriers as well as Apache and Cobra helicopter gunships also are flying behind Iraqi lines in Kuwait to destroy tactical reserve units being held back to counter-punch when the ground combat starts.
U.S. and British warships are prowling closer than ever to the Kuwaiti coast, sinking an Iraqi minelayer Tuesday within 45 miles of the coast and readying to pound shore installations with cannon fire.
The battle the allied forces expect to fight would be a swift-moving "land-air battle" that has been envisioned by Pentagon strategists for a decade but never used in war.
In the early stages, allied bombers will blast away at Iraqi forces, said Col. Johnnie Hitt, commander of the 11th Army Aviation Brigade.
The bombers' goal will be to drive Iraqi forces out of their trenches so allied tanks can engage them in the open, preferably at night because of superior U.S. night-fighting technology.
After the Iraqi forces are stripped of air and artillery cover, allied forces will launch mobile infantry in attacks aimed at breaching the "Saddam Line," the Iraqi front along the Kuwaiti border.
Once the mobile infantry has broken through, the allied commanders intend to quickly shove hundreds of tanks and armored personnel carriers through the gaps for open-field running. The battle will be between a swifter, more heavily armed allied force and the Iraqis, less sophisticated but more numerous and well-entrenched.
Once the "Saddam Line" is pierced, the mobile allied forces will head for the open spaces to cut off and starve Iraqi concentrations.