WASHINGTON -- The Mideast air war -- a prolonged, punishing overture to a likely ground war -- raged on yesterday as tons of U.S. and allied explosives struck Iraqi forces in their fortified bunkers and in moving convoys crisscrossing the desert.
The dominant theme of allied command briefings on the war's 18th day was that Iraq remains in a "defensive posture," seemingly unwilling to set off sustained tank-to-tank, gun-to-gun warfare even as it withstands more "pummeling" from aerial bombardment.
But officials also told of mounting U.S. war losses, with two more aircraft shot down in an unidentified location in the war zone, and one Marine killed on the ground -- probably, officials conceded, by the allies' own fire because allied "cluster" bombs had been dropped in the area, perhaps hitting a Marine convoy. Two other Marines in that convoy were wounded.
Briefing officers also said that, within the next day, military investigators hoped to be able to conclude whether it was allied or enemy fire that had killed 11 Marines during an incident last week near the Saudi border.
The two massed armies on the ground, officials said yesterday, were at most testing each other in a limited way along the Kuwaiti border. A brief battle in which five Qatari tanks reportedly bested five Iraqi tanks was the most significant contact, authorities said.
The allies clearly are not ready to initiate ground warfare, a British officer in Saudi Arabia, Group Capt. Niall Irving, made clear again. "We're in no particular rush here," he said. "Our command is going to be absolutely convinced that they're not a force to reckon with before we move, and that may take a bit more time."
To further postpone a ground conflict, or at least to diminish its scope if it comes, allied forces dumped "an awful lot of ordnance" on dug-in Iraqi troops in Kuwait, including the elite, well-equipped Republican Guard, Captain Irving said.
When Iraqi troops were sighted outside their fortifications, they were promptly bombed and strafed as unscheduled "targets of opportunity" for allied planes. In Saudi Arabia, U.S. Maj. Gen. Robert Johnston reported the "scattering" of about 300 Republican Guard vehicles that had ventured into the open.
The new loss of allied planes -- an A-10 Thunderbolt and an A-6 Intruder -- showed, General Johnston told reporters, that the allies' serious disruption of Iraq's once-sophisticated electronic command system would not keep Iraq from defending itself against strikes from the air.
The two allied planes, he said, were shot by anti-aircraft gunners using simple sighting devices.
General Johnston would not reveal where that incident occurred because allied rescue teams were still trying to locate the crewmen.
Away from the direct ground and air combat, Iraq tried anew to strike with its Scud missiles, sending two across the night sky to targets in Israel's midsection and another aimed at central Saudi Arabia. There were no reports of casualties. The new missile strikes came after allied officers had expressed considerable satisfaction with the diminished pattern of Scud firings recently.
In Riyadh, General Johnston noted that there had been 54 Scud firings since the war began Jan. 17, but that the rate had gone from 35 in the first week, to 18 in the second, to only one in the first half of the third week. But within the hour after he had spoken, the new Scud launch from Iraq sent Israelis scurrying to bomb and poison gas shelters.
The allies' most enthusiastic claim of success in "a most satisfactory" 24 hours, as Captain Irving put it, was the virtual elimination of Iraq's naval fleet capable of launching missiles, essentially taking them out of the war.
General Johnston echoed that sentiment, remarking: "The conclusion is clearly that the Iraqi naval forces are considered to be combat-ineffective."
In Washington, Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly proclaimed that, after the naval war successes, allied forces could now claim to have knocked out two of the three parts of the Iraqi military: on the seas and in the skies. The focus now, he and other leaders said, was on the dug-in ground forces massed along the Iraqi and Kuwaiti borders.
But the emphasis in that phase of the war yesterday was on air strikes, not ground combat, other than the short fight between tanks of Qatar and Iraq when the Iraqi vehicles tried -- reportedly without success -- to penetrate the border. "There is not a significant amount of activity along the border at this time," General Johnston reported.
Allied officials also proclaimed the ouster, capture or killing of all Iraqi troops who had stormed into the town of Khafji. The town "is fully under Saudi control today," according to Col. Ahmed Al-Roboyan of the joint Arab forces. A total of 429 Iraqis were taken prisoner there, 30 were killed and 37 wounded, he said.
The light ground activity in the area where the two sides' armies face each other across a few miles suggested to U.S. authorities that Iraq was not readying new cross-border strikes into Saudi Arabia.
General Johnston summed up: "I would certainly say that there is no indication of any substantial gathering of units that would reflect any kind of offensive initiative on the part of the Iraqi forces."
In Washington, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney virtually invited Iraqi leaders to send their army into new ground encounters, saying that the experience in Khafji demonstrated that such an adventure would end in disaster for Iraq's troops.
What had happened in Khafji, Mr. Cheney said, was that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein let his troops out of their bunkers "to strike out at us," but in doing so made "himself vulnerable to our air. And if he does that again, I think we'll win again. . . . Any time he wants to do that, we're happy to accommodate him."
At the Pentagon, General Kelly told reporters that "it would be a serious mistake to think that the Iraqi army was in a state of disarray north of the border at this time. It remains a capable force, one that we can't take lightly."
With the allied air strikes shifting increasingly to the southern border areas, authorities were stressing the importance of aerial bombardment to soften up the elite Republican Guard in particular, before any allied assault into Kuwait. "They're clearly the linchpin of the Iraqi capability," General Johnston told reporters in Riyadh, "and it is reasonable to expect that we'd go after them as a high priority."