THE last chapter of the long, tense Persian Gulf crisis is finally at hand. Tanks, troops, and commanders of coalition armies are in place and waiting for the final order to begin a ground offensive to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. As of this writing, coalition ground forces remained coiled on their side of the Saudi-Kuwait border. Last-minute diplomatic moves could still produce some sort of peace surprise. (Moscow offers plan to end Gulf war. Story, Page 3.)
But with many Iraqi heavy weapons already destroyed by bombing - publicly released bomb-damage assessments may far understate the true damage done - the coalition's military criteria for launching the ground war appear to have been met. The plight of Iraqi soldiers is such that Pentagon officials now believe they can be overrun relatively quickly.
``The ground campaign certainly won't last as long as the air campaign,'' says one knowledgeable official. Mass surrender of Iraqi troops might hasten the campaign's end. Operation plans call for front-line units in fixed fortifications to be quickly cut off and surrounded, leaving them little option but to give up.
House-to-house fighting in Kuwait City could be bloody, and take weeks. But officials question whether even the crack Republican Guards have the morale to make such an obviously suicidal stand. ``I honestly don't think there will be a fight in Kuwait City,'' says the Pentagon official.
Some unpleasant surprise could cause coalition forces to bog down. Perhaps Saddam has been holding his military in check, to lull the allies into false confidence. Perhaps Iraqi chemical attack will prove to be a formidable weapon. If Republican Guard units have survived bombing relatively intact and can avoid further allied air power as they rush to the battlefield from their behind-the-lines positions in southern Iraq, some bitter fighting could ensue.
But to this point the Iraqi military has been strangely quiet. Besides the well-known reluctance of Iraqi pilots to take to the air, front-line Iraqi artillery units often don't return coalition artillery fire. Pentagon briefers have speculated that Iraqi gunners may be afraid to man their guns.
The land strike at Khafji, plus now-dwindling Scud attacks, has been Iraq's only military response to massive air bombardment. Saddam's strategy has been political, not military, and to this point he has failed in his attempts to split the alliance against him.
Missile attacks against Israel haven't goaded it into alliance-busting retaliation. Iraqi-approved coverage of apparent civilian bombing deaths has caused no outbreak of war revulsion in Western nations. Even the Iraqi offer to withdraw from Kuwait, larded as it was with conditions, has brought no call for a cease-fire from the Soviet Union or France, no proposal, counter-proposal cycle that could be stretched out until the alliance collapsed of its own weight.
If the withdrawal offer was intended as an opening position for genuine negotiations, it may have come too late. US officials over the weekend stressed the point of view that the time for negotiations passed long ago, and that there should be no pause in the war. In essence, they said that if Saddam wants the bombing to stop, let him surrender.
``No cease-fire, no pause, get out of Kuwait,'' said Secretary of State James Baker III.
IF anything, the Iraqi offer could well have moved forward the dates of the ground war, says Ray Tanter, a former National Security Council official who is now a professor at the University of Michigan. Arab allies such as Egypt could be getting nervous about the appeal of Saddam's ploys to the Arab man-in-the-street; the Pentagon may want to make sure it destroys Iraq's military power, now that it has the opportunity.
``The paradox was that [Saddam's] intent was to delay the onset of the ground operation,'' says Dr. Tanter.
From the time the Gulf war bombing began Iraqi rhetoric has dared the US and its coalition allies to come in and fight on the ground, and made lurid predictions of the casualties a ground war could entail. But the timing of the withdrawal offer hints that Saddam realizes a ground war might, in fact, be almost as much a military debacle for him as the air war has been to this point.
``He is possibly desperate,'' says Charles Winslow, a University of Indiana expert on Iraq.
As of this writing, US-led forces were probing Iraqi defenses. Coalition aircraft were hitting targets, such as artillery observation posts, that indicate a ground war might be imminent.
Allied spokesman say use of fuel-air bombs, which produce massive overpressure that can clear minefields, has begun.