U.S. officials vow no letup in air campaign WAR IN THE GULF


WASHINGTON -- Rejecting Iraq's conditional withdrawal proposal yesterday, allied forces kept up a bombing campaign designed to prepare the battlefield of occupied Kuwait and southern Iraq for a ground assault.

Baghdad's surprise pullout offer produced a brief rush of euphoria among allied troops in the Persian Gulf, and officials back in Washington, that an end to the conflict was at hand. But after studying the Iraqi statement, U.S. military spokesmen said there would be no letup in the round-the-clock air campaign unless Iraq were to withdraw unconditionally from Kuwait.

"There will be no change in our military operations," said Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams. "What Saddam Hussein must do first [is] take concrete, massive steps on the ground. . . . It has to start with action and not words."

Officials said Iraq's pullout offer might have been linked to the steady weakening of its armed forces in recent weeks, as well as a desire by Mr. Hussein to delay the start of an expected allied ground offensive.

"We've got them between a rock and a hard spot," said Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal, spokesman for the allied Central Command in the gulf. "We're able to take care of them in a hunkered-down position, and if he wants to move, that's even more to our advantage. . . . I think the results of late are bearing fruit, and hopefully that's figuring into the calculations with the Iraqi leadership."

Pentagon officials expressed strong opposition to the idea of halting the intensive allied bombardment to allow diplomatic negotiations to proceed.

A bombing pause could give Iraqi forces "an opportunity to regenerate and could result in dead Americans in the future," said Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As the U.S.-led campaign enters its second month, the U.S. force in the gulf has grown to more than 520,000 servicemen and women, it was announced. That figure is fewer than 20,000 shy of the peak U.S. military buildup in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

Coalition warplanes flew more than 900 bombing missions yesterday against Iraq's desert army, which has spent much of the past four weeks in heavily reinforced bunkers, trying to gain refuge.

Iraq's military casualties may now exceed 50,000, General Kelly said at a Pentagon briefing. But he cautioned that he had no firm estimates of enemy dead and wounded and added: "Iraq still has an effective fighting force."

One sign of Iraq's military resilience came in the form of a missile attack on the Saudi gulf port of Jubail early today, Saudi time. The missile was said to have fallen harmlessly into the sea.

XTC Allied bombers have made considerable progress in knocking out Iraq's heavy armor, officials say, severely eroding Iraq's military effectiveness in advance of a coalition land assault. But despite speculation that a ground invasion could be only days away, allied commanders have not yet been given the authorization by President Bush to begin a land war, according to General Neal.

Hundreds of thousands of allied troops are now massed in the northern Saudi desert, with efforts continuing to clear the way for them to move farther north, into Iraq and Kuwait. Coalition forces are using munitions to poke "little holes" in the desert minefields laid out by Iraqi forces over the past six months, General Kelly confirmed.

One method is with fuel air explosives, a type of bomb that sprays an area with a fuelly mist, then ignites it, causing a giant blast.

Rumors that a coup attempt either had been made against Mr. Hussein or was in the works drew no public confirmation from military officials.

Mr. Bush helped feed such speculation by remarking yesterday that the war could end more quickly if "the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people . . . take matters into their own hands to force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside."

General Kelly said some Iraqi commanders "may be having second thoughts" about continuing to follow Mr. Hussein's leadership, but he said he could not substantiate rumors of a coup.

In the wake of Mr. Bush's rejection of the Iraqi offer, U.S. officials appeared to provide conflicting answers on just how an end to the fighting might be achieved.

"You take your troops and you leave," said Mr. Williams at the Pentagon. He said "diplomatic mechanisms" existed to work out a withdrawal system.

But military officers said Iraqi troops in Kuwait would be attacked if they emerged from their bunkers, even if they were heading north toward Baghdad. "It could mean that they were trying to gain the tactical advantage," said General Kelly.

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