WASHINGTON -- On the eve of high-level military talks today in the Persian Gulf, the president of France and the leader of British forces both said that an allied ground assault against Iraq is now "inevitable."
Heightening speculation that a potentially bloody land war is imminent, President Francois Mitterrand also said that the ground battle would start "in coming days . . . in any case sometime this month."
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, before leaving Washington for discussions in the gulf with senior military leaders, told Congress he hoped the war could be ended "as soon as possible, to minimize the loss of life on all sides."
[Speaking en route to a refueling stop in Ireland, Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said reporters should be "very careful" about predictions "that the ground campaign, as night follows day, means huge casualties," the Associated Press reported.
[In the same conversation, Mr. Cheney said, "I think those who are arguing for an air campaign that goes on for months are to some extent posing a false choice."
[On their airplane, Mr. Cheney said, "We're thinking in terms of the situation which clearly would continue the air campaign and add to that other capabilities. The amphibious capability, your ground forces as well . . . it's the use of all these assets, all those capabilities, that's likely" to throw Iraq out of Kuwait.]
Mr. Cheney and General Powell are to return Sunday to brief President Bush.
U.S. officials cautioned that no final decision had been made by Mr. Bush to launch a ground attack. But comments by Britain's top military man suggested strongly that the only question now was what hour the invasion would begin.
British Lt. Gen. Peter de la Billiere said it was his "professional opinion" that "a land war is inevitable." He also indicated that allied ground forces would ultimately have to push beyond Kuwait, into southern Iraq.
At a briefing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the British general said the U.S.-led campaign was in "a bit of a lull," a "transition period between the air war and the ground war."
"We're now moving on to the next phase in this battle, which is going to be the ground war, probably the most difficult and certainly the final phase of the war," he said.
An invasion is necessary to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait, he explained, because "we're dealing with a man who uses human life as a currency to buy what he wants to achieve in this world," referring to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
While allied warplanes continued raids against Iraqi troops in the desert and supply lines from Baghdad, a U.S. civilian employee of a NATO air base in Turkey apparently became the first American victim of a terrorist attack linked to the war.
Bobbie Eugene Mozelle, 44, of Detroit was shot to death as he was headed for work at the Incirlik base, being used by allied jets flying combat missions into Iraq.
A 20-year Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam and retired as a master sergeant two years ago, Mr. Mozelle was an accountant for Vinnel, Brown and Root, a private firm under contract to the U.S. military, according to the U.S. Embassy in Ankara.
An anonymous caller said the victim had been punished by Dev Sol, an underground leftist group opposed to the war.
Iraqi leaders have vowed to wage a war of international terrorism against nations allied against it.
French President Mitterrand, in a television interview yesterday to prepare his nation for the likelihood of a ground invasion, cited the danger of a rise in international terrorism as one reason France could not support a prolonged allied occupation of Iraq.
He declared a ground invasion "inevitable" and predicted that the war would be over by spring.
A U.S. military spokesman in Saudi Arabia refused to endorse the conclusion that a ground war was unavoidable.
Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal said the air campaign was "going better than anticipated." However, in responding to questions about General de la Billiere's remarks, he was careful to point out that the British commander meets twice daily with General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the allied commander, and that there is "no difference of opinion. . . . The rapport between those two gentlemen is amazing."
General de la Billiere, in discussing the timing of an invasion, said weather and light conditions would be controlling factors, once military officials concluded that the air campaign had damaged Iraq's ability to fight "competently."
Some analysts have suggested that an invasion could come as early as next week. On Feb. 16, for example, there would be virtually no moonlight, an advantage for allied forces, which have the edge in night-fighting capability, and tides would be favorable for an amphibious landing. Far more important, however, are clear skies, which would be needed for the intensified air campaign that would precede any ground attack.
A central topic of discussion in the talks involving Mr. Cheney, General Powell and the field commanders is expected to be the amount of destruction inflicted thus far on Iraq's Republican Guards, the best-trained and most-feared units in Mr. Hussein's army.
General de la Billiere conceded that, in spite of three weeks of intensive allied bombing, "there is no indication that the Iraqi army is going to crack in the immediate future."
Allied fighters shot down two more Iraqi jets attempting to escape to Iran yesterday.
A Navy F/A-18 Hornet, which carries a single pilot, was reported lost over the northern Persian Gulf, and an Army UH-1H helicopter crashed in Saudi Arabia, killing at least one person and wounding four. Officials said they believed both were non-combat accidents.
Allied air strikes on Iraq's capital city of Baghdad continued throughout Wednesday night, and Iraqi authorities said at least 22 civilians were killed when bombs struck residential areas. U.S. officials said Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries have now been moved to civilian neighborhoods, apparently to shield them from attack.
A prominent American peace activist visiting Baghdad, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, said damage to residential areas showed that coalition forces had exceeded the mandate of the United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, the Associated Press reported.
"You don't have to bomb cities," he said. "It has nothing to do with Resolution 678."
Mr. Clark said he witnessed "a human and civilian tragedy" in the key southern city of Basra, where bombs had destroyed hospitals, coffee shops, offices and other non-military sites. He also said a Baghdad doctor told him several thousand people had been killed or wounded by allied air strikes.
Asked about Mr. Clark's remarks, General Neal told reporters in Saudi Arabia: "War is a dirty business, and unfortunately there will be collateral damage."