WASHINGTON — THE question of the moment is when the ground war begins in Kuwait. The next question is how and where it might end. Few doubt that the United States-led coalition will prevail in driving the Iraqis out of Kuwait, based on the progress of the allied aerial bombardment and the defeat of Iraqi forces in early land skirmishes.
The question for George Bush then becomes whether to stop at the Iraq-Kuwait border or to push into Iraq.
Either choice carries risks and repercussions. To stop at the Iraq border could leave Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in power with substantial military firepower intact - a continuing threat. To push into Iraq could begin to kick away political support, both international and domestic, for a war that appeared to be expanding its aims and expending more casualties on both sides.
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev gave a strong admonition this weekend that the momentum of the war was growing and leading toward the ``catastrophic destruction'' of the Iraqi nation.
In the latest effort to forestall the march to a military conclusion, Gorbachev emissary Yevgeny Primakov arrived yesterday in Baghdad to try to persuade Saddam Hussein to prevent the massive destruction of his armies by withdrawing from Kuwait.
Other countries are setting up as intermediaries as well. The most prominent is Iran, which held diplomatic discussions with Iraq as well as some coalition members last week. Iran is no friend of Iraq's, after eight years of war, but it seeks a political resolution that will avoid the obliteration of Iraqi strength. Iran is also interested in putting its own stamp on the postwar blueprints for stability in the Gulf.
Prime Minister Ghulam Ishaq Khan of Pakistan is facing the kinds of problems the war is presenting many Muslim leaders. As the fighting wears on, anti-American unrest grows in his country. He is traveling the Muslim world promoting his own peace plan, but such initiatives hold little promise of shortening the war. Iraq has rejected it outright, and the US also shows little interest.
The US will not accept cease-fire proposals without clear evidence that Iraq is withdrawing posthaste from Kuwait, Mr. Bush explained last week.
Most US experts consider the chance that Saddam will give up Kuwait, before being driven out, as possible but unlikely.
Laurie Mylroie, a Harvard University Middle East specialist who wrote a recent biography of Saddam Hussein, sees him giving up to the force unleashed against him only if he dies or is incapacitated. ``He just feels nothing for the destruction that is being wrought,'' she says.
In keeping with Saddam's sense of stature in the Arab and Muslim worlds, he is deemed likely to want to inflict as much pain as possible on the powers arrayed against him. ``It's a horrible thought, but I would be surprised if he gave up without unleashing what weapons of mass destruction he may still have,'' says David Newsom, former undersecretary of state for the Near East and a Georgetown University professor of diplomacy.
The use of chemical and biological warfare by the Iraqis raises the prospect that the allies could expand their war aims inside Iraq out of anger and outrage. Iraq's treatment of prisoners-of-war has already brought suggestions from President Bush of pursuing Saddam for war crimes.
Such talk, hinting at the need to oust Saddam, makes it more difficult to settle for merely liberating Kuwait, because it gives Saddam more room to win politically by merely surviving.
``I think what he wants is to inflict casualties, be chased out of Kuwait, then declare victory,'' says Steven Spiegel, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Some in the US and in Israel will then push for a drive into Iraq, says Mr. Newsom, but the coalition partners will not support such a move.
One factor will be whether the Iraqis continue to fight once they are driven from Kuwait. If they continue to fire missiles or artillery or to launch raids from Iraq, coalition forces are more likely to seek to put the Iraqis out of action in their own country.
A much stronger provocation would be required for the US to drive clear through to Baghdad, an action which would be more inflammatory and threatening to Muslim countries in the region.
Moving ground forces into Iraq at all, says Daniel Pipes, director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, would be ``a grievous mistake.''
``It could happen,'' he says, ``because people get carried away in war.''
The danger for US forces if they stop at the Kuwait-Iraq border, says Dr. Pipes, is that the threat of an oil-financed Iraqi military would force foreign troops to remain in the region for security. But the danger with carrying the ground war into Kuwait is that it could force the US to remain as an occupying force simply to protect a prostrate Iraq from its neighbors.
Late last week, Secretary of State James Baker III began spelling out an American postwar vision for the region that included redevelopment financing for Iraq. Although the US has not expanded its war aims to include toppling the Iraqi leader, the allies might continue economic sanctions instead of granting aid to an Iraq with Saddam still in power, Mr. Baker said in Senate hearings.
The US may not have to worry about a triumphant Saddam, once he loses Kuwait. Dr. Mylroie believes that once he has lost, ``that would end his appeal.''