WASHINGTON -- While U.S. warplanes raided Scud missile sites and Marines hurled artillery shells at Iraqi desert positions yesterday, Gen. Colin L. Powell attacked the widespread belief that a land war in the Persian Gulf will be extremely bloody.
General Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney are in the war zone this weekend for talks on the timing of a ground offensive, which some allied leaders have said may be only days away.
En route to Saudi Arabia, General Powell tried to discredit the notion that a land assault to drive Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait would necessarily produce "huge casualties."
"I think the assumption that a ground campaign is Mr. Hussein's campaign, [that] we'll fight it his way, is not necessarily an accurate one," he said.
U.S. officials have expressed concern about Mr. Hussein's willingness to accept large numbers of casualties, as he did in his eight-year war with Iran, in an effort to achieve his political and military goals. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. commander in the gulf, said this week that Iraq's "mad-dog syndrome" makes it a dangerously unpredictable enemy.
General Powell cautioned that he did not mean a ground war would be easy. "There will be casualties in any campaign," he said. "Ground fighting is always difficult. It's always very dangerous."
Iraq's army, equipped with advanced Soviet-built tanks and artillery whose range may exceed that of allied ground forces, is Mr. Hussein's most potent military weapon. Nearly a half-million Iraqi soldiers, including the crack 150,000-man Republican Guards, are dug into heavily reinforced bunkers in Kuwait and southern Iraq.
Mr. Cheney joined efforts to shoot down notions about how a land war might proceed, hinting that it might well begin with a series of quick, tactical movements -- by land or sea or both -- against Iraqi positions rather than a massive invasion, as many analysts have predicted. The goal, he said, would be to draw Iraq's tanks into the open, where they could be struck by allied aircraft.
"We may reach the point where you could make the air campaign more effective by . . . using ground forces to drive [Iraqi troops] out of [their] current positions, where they would become more vulnerable," Mr. Cheney said.
Mr. Cheney criticized those who have argued that the air campaign should continue for weeks or months, in hopes of forcing Iraq to withdraw.
"If all we ever intended was simply an air campaign, we could have started that last October," he said. "We didn't want to do that because we wanted to make certain that, once we started this, that we could finish it."
Mr. Cheney again refused to say when a ground war might begin. The Associated Press, quoting unnamed sources, said air force commanders want at least two more weeks to conclude their strikes against Iraqi military targets.
High on the agenda of the Cheney-Powell meetings is discussion of the damage already inflicted on Iraq's army by three weeks of bombing. Military officials have been reluctant to say in public how much they believe Mr. Hussein's forces have been hurt. They also will not confirm that the key question is how close they are to their supposed goal of reducing the effectiveness of Iraq's army by 50 percent.
U.S. and British military officials would say, however, that about 15 percent of Iraq's tanks and ground artillery have been destroyed, the first time such information has been disclosed. More than 600 of Iraq's 5,000 tanks and 400 of its 3,200 artillery pieces have been put out of action by allied air strikes, they said.
In London, British Defense Secretary Tom King said that up to a fifth of Iraq's "battle-winning equipment" had been destroyed and that the figure would now "move ahead fast." One JTC Republican Guard division had lost 150 -- or half -- of its tanks, enough for it to be judged inoperational by British military standards, he said.
Allied bombing of Iraqi positions in southern Iraq and the Kuwaiti desert has increased in recent days as efforts to shape and "disrupt" the battlefield become the focus of the gulf campaign. More than 600 combat sorties were flown against ground forces yesterday, including 150 against the Republican Guards.
U.S. pilots said they destroyed an Iraqi Scud missile launcher in western Iraq. Several hundred Marines fired more than 100 rounds of heavy artillery into a suspected Iraqi artillery position in Kuwait, just north of the Saudi border. There was no return fire, and no estimate was available on possible Iraqi casualties.
There were scattered exchanges of artillery fire elsewhere along the border, officials said, but no reports of U.S. casualties.
Meantime, 13 more Iraqi jets escaped to Iran, bringing the total on the ground there now to 147, the Pentagon said. U.S. officials maintain that the planes are out of the war, since Iran, a neutral country, has said it will impound them until the fighting ends.
But the commander of allied naval operations told reporters that the aircraft, which include dozens of Iraq's most advanced ship-killing jets, pose a greater threat than they did at home.
Vice Adm. Stanley Arthur, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, said Iraqi warplanes could sneak undetected along Iranian valleys until they reached the gulf, giving U.S. warships only 40 miles of warning. From Iraq, the distance would be up to 200 miles.
Admiral Arthur said he could not accept Iranian assurances that the planes would not fly again in the war.
"I just can't bet on that," he said. "With so many ships in a small body of water, I have to know what's on either side of me. It means instead of looking in one direction, I'm looking in three or four."