WASHINGTON — The preliminary skirmishes of a gulf ground war already have begun: There were artillery exchanges last week between Iraqi troops near the Saudi-Kuwaiti border and U.S. Marines. And the Americans have been openly "rehearsing" amphibious landings off the Persian Gulf.
Many analysts expect the ground forays to increase this week--possibly as probes to help test the Iraqi forces' state of readiness. One or two Iraqi--or allied--units may come under heavy fire.
To be sure, U.S. tacticians have been hoping to accomplish as much as possible by using air power. Pentagon figures show that over the past two weeks allied warplanes have flown more than 20,000 sorties, knocking out strategic targets from radar sites to buildings.
There were even some hopes that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein might cave in after the first few air sorties, relieving the United States and its allies of the need to launch a ground war. Some had visions that Hussein might be killed in action or assassinated by his men.
For now, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney appears to have put a temporary hold on the ground war, saying in a television interview on Sunday that despite the heavy U.S. air attacks, fresh assessments show the damage to the Iraqi war machine has been less extensive than believed previously.
Although his remarks could be designed to throw the Iraqis off guard, Cheney said the allies will not launch a ground attack until they are "absolutely certain that we have gained everything we can" from the air campaign. "We haven't felt any deadline on us in this regard," he added. "The air campaign is going very well, and we want to let it work just as long as possible."
Whatever the timing, there is a growing consensus among military strategists that once the bombers have finished, the U.S.-led multinational force still will have to mount a ground action in order to defeat the 540,000 Iraqi troops now in Kuwait and southern Iraq, and bring the war to a close.
"It is hard to convince me that you own a piece of property until you can stand on it," said retired Army Maj. Gen. Bruce Jacobs, now an official with the National Guard Assn. of the United States.
"You might fly over it, spit on it, napalm it or make it an uninhabitable moonscape, but there are people who would dispute whether you own it. To control the town, you have to be able to sit in city hall."
Just when the real ground war will come, however, still is a matter of military security--and, possibly, fate.
Although outlines of the land war plan have been laid out for several weeks, nagging questions remain. And the answers will ultimately dictate how expensive this war will be both for the soldiers fighting it and for the politicians back home who sent them to the front in the first place. Among the unknowns:
* How effective have allied air sorties been in softening up Iraqi defenses, and particularly in weakening Hussein's elite Republican Guard? It's difficult to tell from the Pentagon's briefings, and bad weather has frequently impeded U.S. bombing.
* Are U.S. and other allied troops fully prepared for a land war? A few U.S. divisions arrived in the gulf only 10 days ago and still are not acclimated to the desert routine. As of last weekend, key fighting equipment for both the U.S. 1st Armored and 3rd Infantry divisions was reported still arriving into Saudi ports some 200 miles from the troops who must use it. Some commanders want the preliminary bombing to continue for at least two more weeks.
* If, as has been speculated, Hussein has been keeping his air force under cover to save it for use against a ground attack, how effective is it likely to be? The few Iraqi planes that have confronted allied fighters so far have been summarily shot down. A related question involves the disposition of dozens of Iraqi fighters that have mysteriously flown to Iran in recent days.
* How effectively will Iraq be able to use its chemical--and possibly biological--weapons, such as nerve gas? Although Baghdad so far has kept these in reserve, Iraqi radio hinted strongly over the weekend that its actions in the future might not be "conventional."
* What about other factors, such as morale, supplies and the availability of fuel? Although the morale among U.S. forces appears to be high at the moment, most American troops aren't battle-tested. How effective they will be remains to be seen.
* How much of a threat is Iraq's formidable artillery complement, which includes modern weapons purchased from the Soviet Union, Argentina and South Africa? Some analysts believe it is at least a match for that of the allies.
Almost everyone concedes that, inevitable or not, a move into a major ground war would be a major step politically for the Bush Administration. Until now, U.S. casualties have been remarkably light--a few U.S. pilots taken prisoner, a handful of deaths.