DHAHRAN, SAUDI AARABIA — DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- U.S. field commanders are calling their first ground engagements against Iraqi forces evidence of the enemy's weak, crude and even "careless" battlefield tactics and maneuvering.
But these first impressions, conveyed mostly in the limited number of news dispatches coming from the front, raise questions about the true quality of the Iraqi soldiers who will fight to hold on to Kuwaiti territory.
While noting the relative ease in routing Iraqi troops and targets so far, some senior military officers privately are concerned about U.S. public expectations as the war moves fully into a new, deadlier phase on the ground.
The Iraqi army might collapse after the first days of a large-scale ground war, but it might also fight fiercely to the last man, one senior officer said.
He said Iraqi troops fought doggedly, though unimaginatively, for eight years against Iran.
But this U.S. officer also agreed with many Western analysts that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has shuffled, replaced or executed seasoned officers and undermined the "professional" military command structure to safeguard against military uprisings.
"I think he's out to lunch as far as strategic planning is concerned," he said.
"But I expect he's looking for something big, maybe a dramatic strike at a city, a large convoy, a unit encampment. A big kill to score a psychological blow," he said.
"We can't be complacent."
Whether or not the Iraqis are working from a cleverly drawn war plan, the engagements disclosed by the U.S. military and, on rare occasion, witnessed by media pools covering the war, paint an image of an unsophisticated and inept enemy.
In the latest incident -- the invasion into Saudi territory by Iraqi armored units Tuesday night and yesterday -- Iraqis were said to have experienced far heavier losses than U.S. and allied forces.
Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander in chief of the U.S. forces in the region, played down the military significance of the Iraqis' offenses and capture of the deserted Saudi town of Khafji.
"You know, moving in to an unoccupied village six miles inside friendly lines when there's nobody there -- I don't consider that a major victory," he said.
In previous incidents near Khafji, Marines had come under sporadic and apparently haphazard Iraqi artillery and rocket fire, but then retaliated with heavy firepower, silencing much of the Iraqi shelling by late last week.
Officials expressed amazement that the Iraqi troops would expend ammunition and risk revealing their position for very little apparent military advantage.
Late Monday, the Marines caught a large Iraqi armored convoy moving across the open desert and called in an air strike. Harrier jets and other warplanes attacked 24 tanks, armored personnel carriers and supply vehicles.
"It was the first hard kill we've gotten on a big target," said Col. Ron Richard of the 2nd Marine Division.
Judging the Iraqi performance, Colonel Richard said, "They got careless and got caught."
In another incident, the U.S. military reported that an Iraqi officer was killed late Sunday when 12 Iraqi soldiers crossed into Saudi territory and ambushed a Saudi border patrol.
Although the Saudi border guards were wounded slightly in the exchange of gunfire and rocket, the Iraqi officer had been inadvertently shot in the chest by one of his own troops, the military said.
"It was not a professional ambush," one senior U.S. officer told reporters.
"I don't think there's much strategy now," observed Cmdr. Mark Lawrence, intelligence officer for the aircraft carrier USS Ranger.
"I think that the [Iraqi] air force is bugging out to protect themselves [until] after the war," he told a combat media pool. "I think that the AAA [anti-aircraft artillery] is low on ammunition and low on will to fight. I think that the army guys have been left to bury themselves."