WASHINGTON — NOW the fate of Kuwait is in the hands of young soldiers who have spent months waiting, living in tents and damp bunkers, honing the skills of war while wondering what they would feel in their hearts when the steel began to fly. Political issues which for months seemed important have become moot. The disparate allies have held together; Israel hasn't been drawn into the war; Arab masses haven't arisen in the streets of Cairo; terrorism hasn't swept the Western world. The Persian Gulf war has become war in the fullest sense of the term. Pentagon officials have long said that any ground attack would use massive, brute force to deal with Iraq's extensive defenses. ``This is a major military operation against a well-equipped and fortified enemy,'' said Defense Secretary Richard Cheney on Saturday night. As of this writing, little information about the United Nations coalition's ground offensive was available, though it was clear that corps-sized columns were on the move. Initial reports were that coalition formations were thrusting into Kuwait along three axes, two by land, one by sea. In addition, the United States VII Corps was reported sweeping through Iraq in a flanking move westward of Iraqi defenses. Diversionary tactics and feigned attacks were undoubtedly complicating the picture. The capture of Failaka Island outside Kuwait City harbor was the first apparent recapture of strategic territory. French, British, and Saudi sources all announced their forces were taking part in the ground force movement. US military briefings in Washington and Saudi Arabia were suspended until further notice, said Secretary Cheney, to help keep Saddam Hussein as much in the dark about operations as possible. The cancellation of briefings is sure to draw fire from the media. The sowing of confusion, however, is a key aspect of US AirLand Battle doctrine. The objective is to move fast and keep the enemy guessing. Undoubtedly, the US Central Command battle plan calls for attack columns to hit hard and be long through any defenses before Iraqi reinforcements can be brought up for counterattack. By the time Iraqi commanders know where the penetration has occurred, the allies will be attacking somewhere else. US and allied forces will try to make sure Iraqi headquarters maps of the battle will always be hopelessly out of date. ``You get ahead of the other guy's decision loop, so he can't keep track of what's happening,'' says a Pentagon weapons consultant. US military officials are confident that Iraq's ground forces in Kuwait can be dealt with in relatively short order. Not that they are expected to fold completely: Despite the pounding of coalition air power, thousands of Iraqi tanks and artillery pieces are still operational. Iraqi forces are expected to use chemical weapons as a routine part of their artillery fire, with unknown consequences for coalition casualties and for subsequent war escalation. US officials have hinted that, not only will Iraqi commanders who order chemical use be liable to war crimes prosecution, but that gas war might also encourage the coalition forces to hunt down Saddam himself. With the allies having domination of the skies, far superior tactical intelligence, and complete control over ground war initiative, the outcome seems foreordained. The only questions left are how long it will take, what the casualty bill will be for both sides, and what the military pieces on the chessboard will look like when the fighting is over. THIS last point is of crucial importance, as far as the US military is concerned. If enough of Saddam's army manages to retreat into Iraq beyond destruction, Kuwait could be free, but the Iraqi security threat to the region could remain. Some sort of large coalition ground force would have to stay in place, on alert. ``What we worry about is getting into a big-time peacekeeping situation,'' says a knowledgeable Pentagon official. The analogy would be to Korea, where an uneasy peace has prevailed ever since the end of the Korean War. To head off such a situation, Saddam should be prevented from saving his army, according to Heritage Foundation defense analyst Jay Kosminsky. This could be accomplished by an allied ground offensive that sweeps into southern Iraq to surround the bulk of Iraqi forces, including the Republican Guards. Mr. Kosminsky also recommends keeping up the pressure on Iraq, if necessary, by occupying such key southern Iraqi territory as the Fao Peninsula and the city of Basra, and maintaining the naval blockade of Iraq. ``Even a US military success in a limited war could leave Saddam with options'' such as continued Scud missile attacks, Kosminsky warns. -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/91/mar/week10/agulf.