WASHINGTON -- The Senate's top two leaders warned President Bush yesterday against engaging U.S.-led allied troops in a land battle against Iraqi forces any time soon -- an action, they said, that could result in thousands of U.S. casualties and undermine domestic support for the Persian Gulf war.
Their comments reflected Capitol Hill's general nervousness, one that has grown in response to rumors and reports of an imminent ground war between U.S. soldiers and entrenched, battle-hardened Iraqi divisions, and its reluctance to criticize Mr. Bush personally.
"I think we should continue to do what we're doing," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan. "We're being very successful in the air . . . which I think we ought to continue until we decide that we can hasten the end by some limited ground action."
Mr. Dole, appearing on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press," implied that Mr. Bush could lose the political war for public support at home even if he wins the military war if too many U.S. lives are claimed in combat.
"I don't think Americans are ready for war, period," he said. "So certainly if there's a ground offensive and there are thousands of casualties, support for this effort is going to drop, I think, rather sharply."
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, who followed Mr. Dole on the same program, stressed that the decision to initiate a ground assault would be made by the president and implied that the congressional leaders would support him, at least initially, whatever his decision.
Still, he said, "I think the air war can continue successfully for some time," adding that he hoped the president would "err on the side of caution with respect to American lives."
Mr. Dole also said that "there's a bit of truth" to the Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's assertion that the U.S.-directed multinational force, with its extensive air attacks on targets deep within Iraq, had expanded on the United Nations mandate of liberating Kuwait from Iraqi forces.
"I think, to some extent, when we say . . . we're going to, in effect, destroy Iraq militarily, that was not one of the original objectives," he said, while hastening to add that he didn't "see anything wrong with it."
"I don't think President Bush has expanded anything," Mr. Dole said. "But just by happenstance, to get them out of Kuwait, we've had to go after repeatedly . . . targets in Iraq because he [Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein] is not moving out of Kuwait."
Even opposition lawmakers are gingerly sidestepping the question of whether President Bush has rightfully exceeded established boundaries for the conduct of this war.