WASHINGTON -- Amid signs that a decision to launch a land war against Iraq is getting closer, U.S. military officials contended yesterday that relentless strikes by allied bombers were "clearly" sapping Iraq's ability to resist a ground assault.
Despite the highly positive public reports about the progress of the U.S.-led bombing campaign, military officials privately acknowledged that they were uncertain about its effectiveness against the Iraqi army, including the highly trained Republican Guards. But they maintain that the sheer volume of bombing runs should be enough to guarantee that damage is being done.
"These folks are good at deceiving how good we're going with the bombing campaign. . . . They do use decoys. . . . If they're not taking shrapnel, they're taking it psychologically. They're taking it every three hours, some Republican Guard [units], every three hours," a senior military official said.
President Bush, also expressing skepticism that air power alone could pry Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait, said he was dispatching Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for a quick visit to Saudi Arabia to consult with U.S. commanders in the field.
At a Pentagon briefing, Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the decision to wage a ground war might have to be based as much on instinct as on military intelligence.
"It's more of an art than a science when it comes to making an estimate of what your enemy's capability is," he said.
Allied air strikes had not yet cut off the supply of fuel, food and ammunition to Iraqi troops at the front, General Kelly acknowledged.
"We have been, we think, fairly successful, very successful, so far, but more remains to be done, and that's why we're revisiting targets," he said.
The Iraqis, he added, are "very good combat engineers" and are busily repairing their supply lines, despite heavy bombardment of roads, bridges and airfields.
"Obviously, we don't think we've gone far enough, because we continue to pound his forces . . . the Republican Guards . . . and other strategic targets that need to be attacked," General Kelly said, referring to the nearly 2,800 combat and support missions being flown daily by allied aircraft.
In ground action, Syrian forces fought their first engagements of the war after one of their desert positions in northeastern Saudi Arabia was overrun and apparently occupied during a surprise Iraqi attack Monday night, U.S. Marine officers said.
Another Syrian unit came under artillery fire, but the Syrians managed to stave off an Iraqi assault.
Only fragmentary details were available, and it was unclear whether other allied forces were involved or whether the Iraqis remained in control of the first Syrian position.
Syria had said it would take no part in any military offensive against Iraq.
Allied officials announced that at least 10 more Iraqi jets had been flown to Iran this week, most of them front-line fighters and transport planes. U.S. military officials said there are at least 110 Iraqi warplanes in Iran.
Meantime, Saudi officials said six suspects had been arrested in connection with an attack Monday on a bus in Jidda that slightly injured three people, including two U.S. servicemen. The nationality of the suspects, described only as resident foreigners, was not disclosed, but officials said they were not Iraqis.
Amid speculation that an allied land offensive could begin later this month, Pentagon officials played down reports that allied commanders were waiting until as much as 50 percent of Iraq's tanks and armored vehicles had been destroyed before they would order a ground attack.
"This is not a numbers game," General Kelly said. "At some point, judgments in war have to be based on more than just cold hard numbers. . . . The leadership is going to have to make the decision when we feel that the forces [in Kuwait and southern Iraq] have been softened sufficiently to go on to another phase, whatever that phase may be."
While refusing to provide specifics on damage he said had been inflicted on Iraq's military strength, Marine Maj. Gen. Robert Johnston, the chief of staff with the U.S. Central Command in Saudi Arabia, said the air assault was killing Iraqi soldiers, destroying tanks and other armored vehicles and "definitely softening up" Iraqi fortifications in the desert.
No recent estimates have been released by either side on the number of Iraqi troops killed by allied forces. Iraqi authorities said yesterday that at least 428 Iraqi civilians had been killed and more than 650 wounded.
One indication that allied air strikes were exacting a toll was an announcement from Baghdad that Iraq had banned the sale of fuel to civilians. The Ministry of Oil, in a statement, said the measure took effect Monday and would last "until further notice."
It affects all petroleum products, including gasoline and heating oil, and comes near the depth of the Iraqi winter, in which nighttime temperatures in Baghdad often dip into the low 30s.