WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military clamped a lid on information about the Persian Gulf war yesterday as the 38-day-old conflict blossomed into the largest combined ground, air and sea offensive since World War II.
"Up to now we have been as forthcoming as possible about military operations," Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said. "But from this point forward we must limit what we say."
The regular daily press briefings from the Pentagon and the operational headquarters in Saudi Arabia, he said, were being suspended.
Mr. Cheney described the start of the long-awaited ground phase of the war as "a major military operation" designed "to force Iraq out of Kuwait with the minimum of casualties to allied forces."
Military officials said they had to assume that the intensive bombing campaign of the last few weeks had severely damaged the Iraqi lines of communications and command.
"We must assume that the enemy is confused about what is happening on the battlefield," Mr. Cheney said. It was important, he said, not to reveal anything that could help the Iraqis and endanger coalition soldiers.
Mr. Cheney did, however, confirm reports that the coalition had long planned to launch the ground phase of the campaign at noon yesterday. He said the allies would have delayed or canceled the operation only if the weather turned bad or if Iraq had accepted President Bush's ultimatum to withdraw from Kuwait.
He would not say how many of U.S. allies were involved in the intensified war, only that it was "a significant number."
The constriction of information on the war could further aggravate tensions between the military and the media.
This would be particularly apparent among the more than 1,000 reporters of all nationalities currently based in Saudi Arabia. The military's insistence on regulating press access to the front through a limited "pool" system has already led to heated arguments, not only between the media and military commanders but also among rival reporters.
Pentagon officials have said that the large number of journalists would disrupt operations if allowed to roam freely and that uncensored reports could give valuable information to the Iraqis. Reporters complain, however, that soldiers detailed to escort pool reporters sometimes try to censor dispatches for propaganda reasons rather than security.
With access to information now even more limited, the simmering tensions could flare into open confrontation between military and media representatives as the competition intensifies over less news about a war that President Bush said has now entered "the final phase."