Heavy Bombing and Iranian Ploy

B-52s lead air offensive aimed at softening up Saddam Hussein's crack Republican Guard; no deadline set for ground offensive, but Cheney and Powell going to Gulf to assess situation. UPDATE

AS the Persian Gulf war enters its fourth week the United States-led coalition appears to have begun the final stages of preparation for large-scale ground combat. The coalition's air bombardment has focused in recent days on dug-in Iraqi military units, with the sound of B-52 strikes becoming audible to US troops on the front lines in Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Marine amphibious units have moved closer to the Kuwaiti theater of operations, threatening Saddam Hussein's troops with a landing behind their front lines.

With President Bush publicly voicing skepticism that air power alone can force Iraq out of Kuwait, the timing of a ground assault now seems to depend on the results of this week's visit to the Gulf region by Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney.

``We have not established any sort of artificial timetable,'' said Secretary Cheney.

In a way, the ground war has already begun. Besides the artillery raids and patrol skirmishing which have taken place since the first day of fighting, last week's Iraqi strike into the Saudi border town of Khafji showed how intense even relatively small firefights can be.

Pentagon officials are still scratching their heads over the battle of Khafji, with one saying it was ``bizarre'' for Iraqi troops to move in force out of their lines without air cover. When it was over, 11 marines had been killed, seven by so-called friendly fire from a US warplane, and Khafji had been recaptured by Saudi and Qatari troops.

Analysts pointed to two likely explanations for the Khafji attack. The Iraqis, without airborne reconnaissance planes, could have been trying to find out where coalition forces were and seeking to test their mettle. Or the move could have been a way of demonstrating to the world that, despite intensive allied bombing, Iraq's military is still very much alive.

Days later, it was still unclear how Iraqi troops had managed to do something most US officials had not thought them capable of - smooth movement out of their trenches and through allied lines to a point inside Saudi Arabia.

``They seem to have brought that off reasonably successfully, though their return trip was not so well executed,'' said William Kincade, a military expert at the American University School of International Service.

More air strikes

Meanwhile, air strikes continued. In three weeks of fighting allied warplanes have flown more than 50,000 sorties, and it seems clear that considerable damage has been inflicted all over their theater of operations, from Baghdad to southern Kuwait.

Roads, railways, and airfields have been bombed and rebombed. At least 42 bridges have suffered major damage, according to Pentagon estimates.

``We calculate that probably at least 70 percent of his [the Iraqis'] lines of communication have been in some way disrupted,'' said Brig. Gen. Richard Neal, deputy director of operations for the Central Command.

With many strategic targets in Iraq neutralized, the focus of the air war has increasingly shifted south to Iraqi military fortifications. By midweek B-52s were running strikes on key Republican Guard installations every three or four hours. US officials said Guard troops were undoubtedly getting little sleep, day and night. Other aircraft, such as F-15Es, targeted small military convoys and assembly areas.

``We continue to ... try to isolate the battlefield and to shape the battlefield for future operations,'' said General Neal.

The US also, in recent days, reacted cooly to diplomatic moves by Iran aimed at establishing itself as a mediator between the warring parties in the Gulf crisis.

On Monday, Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani said he would be willing to act as a go-between if Iraq accepted an Iranian peace proposal, which he did not detail. President Bush said he didn't think the Iranians had a serious proposal.

Shaul Bakhash, an Iranian expert at George Mason University, says Iranian officials ``have been genuinely alarmed by the possibility there might be widespread instability in the region. They don't want Iraq to collapse, creating a power vacuum into which Turkey or Iran itself might be drawn.''

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