WASHINGTON -- Allied military leaders vowed yesterday to go right on pounding Iraq's military, with no pause or cease-fire, right up to the point at which the coalition is satisfied that a withdrawal from occupied Kuwait has started and is not a ruse or feint.
Smoke from burning oil fields covered 25 percent of Kuwait as U.S. forces fought clashes along the borders of Iraqi-held territory and prepared both for an Iraqi withdrawal and for the launch of an all-out ground war.
The damaged oil fields were discovered by pilots and intelligence-gathering aircraft, the U.S. military command said. Fires were seen at more than 150 oil wells along with signs of destruction at other oil industry facilities.
Allied spokesmen continued to insist that President Bush had issued no orders to start a ground war. Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, repeated that during a Pentagon briefing and added:
"There's no guarantee that we're going to have a ground campaign at noon [today]. I feel fairly sure we're not going to do it at 12:01."
Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of coalition forces, said in a statement released within minutes of Mr. Bush's ultimatum to Iraq, "U.S. forces are fully prepared for execution of any action or any order given by the president of the United States."
As the diplomatic and military leaders went about their high-level maneuvering, U.S. forces continued to fight clashes along the borders of Iraqi-held territory, and one more American died: a Marine, killed by incoming artillery fire on a U.S. position near the Saudi border.
Allied pilots, intelligence-gathering aircraft and a commercial satellite high in the skies over the Persian Gulf region monitored the burning of more than 150 oil wells in Kuwait and kept track of the fires' billowing black clouds as they covered more than a quarter of Kuwait and drifted southeast, toward the Persian Gulf.
Military spokesmen said Iraqis' igniting of the oil wells represented a sharp step-up in that phase of their war campaign. The spokesmen speculated that this "scorched-earth policy" -- as they and President Bush called it -- might well have been designed to try to hamper allied forces' operations against Iraqi emplacements in Kuwait, as well as a fulfillment of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's threat either to keep Kuwait or to leave it devastated.
If an allied ground offensive were ordered, the spokesmen said, commanders knew ways to cope with the thick curtain of smoke -- assuming the fires continued to burn.
General Kelly, along with chief Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams, made clear that allied commanders were determined not to relax or cut off their aerial bombardment and across-the-border probing before an Iraqi pullout was a certainty.
"The main concern is that if it's going to be withdrawal, that it be real withdrawal, that there not be some kind of delaying tactic or some kind of pause that would permit them to resupply their forces . . . [and] increase the hazard to the U.S. military operation and to our troops," Mr. Williams said.
General Kelly said he did not "see any cause at all for any kind of pause in an operation before" there was definite and dependable word from Iraq that withdrawal had started. "In my mind, that [a pause] correlates directly to dead Americans in the event that it's some kind of a ruse."
As a potential withdrawal was pondered more seriously, allied spokesmen were pressed for details of how the war effort would go should such a homeward-bound flow of Iraqi forces begin, and how much war-making equipment Iraq's forces would be allowed to take with them.
General Kelly said that Iraq would be allowed to take out of Kuwait whatever it could in a week's time -- the maximum time likely to be allowed -- and that the allies would then police Kuwait to assure that nothing more went to Iraq.
The general rebuffed repeated attempts to get him to say just how much military equipment -- and military power -- Iraq would retain after it took what equipment it could carry back to its own territory. He said allied officials did not know how many of the armored vehicles were capable of being driven anymore.
The most significant development in the war zone on the 38th day of the conflict appeared to be the torching of the oil wells and other oil installations in Kuwait.
Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal said in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that at least 100 of the fires had been set within the last 24 hours and that they were scattered throughout the country. He maintained that the black smoke did not hamper U.S. pilots carrying out air strikes.
A Pentagon official said the wells were spewing hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous gas that the official insisted was more of a threat to Iraqi forces now than to ground troops of the U.S.-led coalition.