WASHINGTON -- President Bush is sending his top two military advisers back to Saudi Arabia tomorrow to determine in part whether the time has come to launch a ground offensive in the war against Iraq.
Mr. Bush said that a decision to send troops into a potentially bloody ground war was not necessarily imminent but that he was emotionally "prepared" to make it.
At a White House news conference, Mr. Bush also insisted that the allied pounding of Iraq would go on until Iraqi forces undertook "a credible, visible, totally convincing withdrawal" from Kuwait.
He acknowledged that he had no expectation that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would voluntarily take such a step, nor any real insight into the Iraqi leader's thinking.
Mr. Bush admitted he was hoping that "somehow, some way," Mr. Hussein would fall from power in Iraq and be replaced by a leader more concerned about sparing his nation and his troops from the punishment of round-the-clock bombing raids against which they are almost defenseless.
The president also discarded the administration's frosty response to the latest round of diplomatic initiatives, praising Iran and other would-be mediators for offering to help.
On the domestic front, Mr. Bush declared unequivocally that hewould not reinstate the military draft -- a worry continually raised on college campuses.
Mr. Bush also contended that the costs of the war -- even a lengthy ground conflict -- would put no additional burden on the American taxpayer, beyond the $15 billion he has included in his new budget proposal. With allied contributions of $51 billion, Mr. Bush said, he expected that would be "sufficient."
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the war could cost as much as $82 billion if it lasts six months, but the president said he didn't think the war would be "long and drawn out."
Mr. Bush said the purpose of the mission to Saudi Arabia by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would be to get a "firsthand status report" from the military commanders in the field, and then report back to him "quickly."
Among the questions Mr. Bush said he expected the two advisers to answer upon their return Sunday was whether the air campaign alone would be enough to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait.
He admitted he was "somewhat skeptical" that a ground war could be avoided, but he said he was eager to hear what his advisers learned from the Persian Gulf commander, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, and from other field commanders.
Despite an early White House claim that the president would leave the issue of whether to begin a ground war to his military advisers, Mr. Bush made it clear he considers the decision to be his responsibility.
"I'm going to make these calls," he said.
Previous visits by Mr. Cheney and General Powell to Saudi Arabia occurred as U.S. involvement in the gulf was about to escalate.
During an August visit, Mr. Cheney obtained the Saudis' permission to send them a defensive contingent of U.S. forces. General Powell visited the troops twice last fall before recommending to Mr. Bush that U.S. ranks be boosted to an offensive posture.
NB General Powell and Mr. Cheney went back to the Persian Gulf to
LTC gether in late December. A few weeks later, the day after the United Nations deadline for Iraq to leave Kuwait passed, Mr. Bush launched bombing raids on Baghdad.
The president's comments on Iran were perhaps the kindest words out of the White House in years about that country. Mr. Bush praised the government of President Hashemi Rafsanjani for offering to broker talks to end the gulf war.
"Iran is conducting itself, in my view, in a very credible way here," Mr. Bush said, noting that Iraq's neighbor and erstwhile foe also had honored the U.N. sanctions against Iraq, maintained its neutrality in the war and refused to return Iraqi planes that have taken shelter in Iran from allied bombing.
But the president repeated the view that there was nothing for Iran to negotiate and that not even a cease-fire was possible until Mr. Hussein made clear an intention to immediately withdraw from Kuwait.
"He's got to say, 'I'm going to get out of Kuwait now, and I'm going to get out fast, and I'm going to do it so everybody knows that I'm not making this up,' " Mr. Bush said.