RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- While declaring that air strikes had been effective against Iraqi targets, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said yesterday that more intense military action would be needed to force Iraq out of Kuwait and that Iraq retained the ability to strike back.
After a weekend of consultations here with allied commanders, Mr. Cheney announced no timetable for beginning a ground assault. But he suggested that at least a limited ground offensive would be needed to force Iraqi soldiers out of their bunkers, to make them more vulnerable to bombing raids.
Mr. Cheney arrived in Washington last night and was scheduled to convey his findings today to President Bush. The defense secretary and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed the gulf war during more than eight hours of meetings with the overall commander of allied forces, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf.
Based on his comments to reporters, Mr. Cheney sounded prepared to recommend that ground forces eventually be used, citing the risk that allied bombing otherwise will reach the point of diminishing returns, for lack of good targets.
"At some point we would expect to bring other elements of our force to bear on the problem of getting him out of Kuwait," Mr. Cheney said at a news conference. "The question is when, and what's the most effective use of those additional forces."
Military authorities said they foresaw a surplus of bombing targets for days to come, indicating that a ground offensive may not be imminent. "I don't anticipate we'll run out of targets in the near term," Marine Brig. Gen. Richard Neal said in a briefing. "It looks like it's going to be a target-rich environment for a while."
[The New York Times reported that U.S. military commanders in the gulf had recommended a three-week delay in launching a ground war to give the allied bombing campaign more time.
[But a senior Bush administration official told Reuters that the U.S. gulf force was fully deployed and ready for battle. Mr. Cheney told reporters on his flight home that allied air raids may have reduced the strength of some Iraqi army divisions by up to 40 percent.]
As the bombing missions continued, the military reported that for the first time in more than a week, a U.S. warplane had been shot down by Iraqi fire. General Neal said that the plane, a Marine AV-8 Harrier, was downed Saturday afternoon over southern Kuwait and that its pilot was missing.
A total of 25 aircraft belonging to coalition forces have been shot down since the war began, 18 of those American. The U.S. military says allied planes have shot down 39 Iraqi aircraft.
Allied aircraft flew a total of 2,800 missions yesterday, an increase of about 15 percent over recent days. General Neal said 200 bombing missions were directed against units of the Republican Guards, who "are getting the focus of our efforts."
U.S. and Saudi officers also reported a further increase in the number of Iraqi deserters, to the highest daily total reported so far. General Neal said that in the 24 hours ending yesterday afternoon, 42 Iraqis surrendered to U.S. forces. A Saudi spokesman said 16 others surrendered to Saudi troops and another 17 to Egyptian units.
Before he left Saudi Arabia, Mr. Cheney projected confidence about the eventual outcome of the conflict, ruling out any cease-fire unless Iraq withdrew from Kuwait. He expressed certainty that Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president, had no chance of a military victory.
"My personal belief is there isn't anything he can do at this stage that would reverse the basic, fundamental course of the war," Mr. Cheney said. "It seems to me there is only going to be one outcome, and that's going to be his defeat."
That confidence was echoed by British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, speaking here after conferring with the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal.
Mr. Hurd's talks here and a session Saturday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo included discussions of postwar security arrangements, Mr. Hurd said, a sign that the main Arab coalition partners are counting on Mr. Hussein's defeat.
Mr. Hurd promised that the West would not try to impose a security plan of its own and said London had ruled out permanently stationing British ground forces in the region.
"The idea is that the initiatives have to come from here, from the region," Mr. Hurd said. "What we need is a collective response, and it is clear that is beginning to take shape."
The visit of Mr. Cheney and General Powell, the first to the region since the war began Jan. 17, marked the end of one stage of the conflict, the chapter in which coalition leaders waited to assess the effectiveness of the first air strikes.
While officials generally expressed satisfaction with the results, Mr. Cheney sounded taken aback at the size of the Iraqi forces surviving three weeks of around-the-clock bombing.
"With respect to his total force, he retains a very significant part of what was the world's fourth-largest army," Mr. Cheney said. "I doubt it's the fourth-largest anymore; it's smaller than that. But I think that nobody in a senior position wants to underestimate the size, the capability of the force that's left."
Iraq could still scramble large numbers of aircraft in a one-time attempt to overwhelm the coalition's air defenses, launch a ground offensive or use chemical weapons in an unexpected way, Mr. Cheney said.
Many efforts by coalition forces had gone well, he said. Iraq's air force "has reached the point of ineffectiveness." Its navy was "virtually non-existent." Facilities for manufacturing chemical, biological or nuclear weapons were "for the most part destroyed."
Mr. Cheney was more cautious describing the effect of air strikes against units of the Republican Guard, the core of the Iraqi ground force in Kuwait. Units were "hard hit," he said, but damage remained difficult to measure.
U.S. military officers have reported the destruction of roughly 20 percent of Iraq's tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers. Less certain is the bombing's effect on troop morale.
"Some of those divisions have been eroded more significantly than others, but I think they've been hard hit," Mr. Cheney said. "We may never know, though, until we actually force them to move out of their positions, and try to fight them as a unit, exactly how badly they've been hit."