Bush rejects ground war in near future Air war continues to satisfaction of president, military WAR IN THE GULF

February 12, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun Sun correspondents Robert Ruby in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Mark Matthews in Washington contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- As allied warplanes struck Iraq's dug-in desert army with new intensity yesterday, President Bush indicated he had no immediate plans to order a ground war in the Persian Gulf.

Military commanders have said that increased bombing of Iraqi forces would precede a land assault into occupied Kuwait. Mr. Bush himself remarked last week that he was skeptical air power alone could force Iraq to withdraw.

But his Rose Garden comments yesterday, which followed talks with top military advisers just back from the war zone, were clearly designed to discourage speculation that a land war was imminent. Recent remarks by French and British leaders have heightened expectations that an allied ground offensive could begin as early as this week.

Flanked by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president said he was "very satisfied" with the progress of the allied campaign. The defense officials gave Mr. Bush a status report based on two days of strategy sessions with allied field commanders in Saudi Arabia.

The air campaign will continue "for a while," Mr. Bush declared. He indicated that he and his military advisers were not now discussing a date for a ground phase to begin.

"We're not talking about dates for further -- [for] adding to the air campaign, put it that way," he told reporters. "We are going to take whatever time is necessary to sort out when a next stage might begin."

The president weighed the start of ground action as Iraq expressed anew yesterday its determination not to capitulate and announced that the government had ordered 17-year-old male students to report for military duty.

"Iraq will not ask for a cease-fire after one week or two weeks, and it will not cease its fire until total victory over the aggressors is achieved," Iraqi radio said.

The Bush administration has been under pressure from Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill to delay a ground war as long as possible. Despite assertions by General Powell and other top officials that a land phase may not be as bloody as many fear, there continues to be concern that public support for the war would begin to evaporate if there were a prolonged ground campaign with heavy casualties.

Mr. Bush, aware that his remarks are monitored closely by Iraq and that allied commanders would like to preserve a measure of tactical surprise in timing any ground offensive, said he would have nothing further to say about the next phase of the war. He indicated that other U.S. officials should refrain from such talk as well, "for a lot of reasons, including the safety of our own troops."

Military officials in Saudi Arabia continued to project considerable optimism about the damage that had been done to Iraqi ground forces during the first 3 1/2 weeks of the bombing campaign. Both at their headquarters, in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, and in the field they said that many more targets remained to be hit, despite the roughly 63,000 combat and support sorties flown by allied pilots so far.

U.S. commanders said they were encouraged by signs that some Iraqi units were adjusting their positions within Kuwait.

"Some of the movement has convinced us they are takin big-time hits on some of their organization and structure," a senior military officer said. "They have had to combine some of those forces."

The U.S.-led air armada flew one of its heaviest raids of the war, with more than 750 bombing runs into occupied Kuwait Sunday night and yesterday. The strikes included 200 missions against the elite Republican Guards.

One Air Force commander said that so many allied planes were filling the skies over Kuwait that there was a serious concern about midair collisions.

Another officer said the air traffic over tiny Kuwait was greater than that over Los Angeles, Dallas and Atlanta combined.

The stepped-up pace of air attacks on Iraqi ground forces was not the only sign that a land phase might begin relatively soon despite Mr. Bush's comments. Marine Brig. Gen. Richard Neal, at a briefing for reporters in Saudi Arabia several hours before Mr. Bush spoke, acknowledged that the sandstorms that typically strike the region in early March were "very much" a concern of planners.

"We look at the moon. We look at the light data. We look at the weather," he said. "So it's a critical factor." Some analysts have noted that this weekend and early next week, with a new moon and favorable tides, would be a natural time for a land and amphibious attack.

But a Pentagon briefer, speaking after Mr. Bush's comments, tried to play down the weather factor and sought to cast doubt on whether a ground campaign might be needed at all.

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