WASHINGTON -- President Bush told the people of occupied Kuwait yesterday that allied military forces will come to their aid "very, very soon," and U.S. forces in the Middle East sharply stepped up their probes to test Iraq's capacity to fight in a ground war.
Amid these and other signs that an allied ground assault to liberate Kuwait may be fast approaching, allied commanders in Saudi Arabia continued to insist that they had not picked a definite date to order their troops into Kuwait and Iraq.
"There is no date established at this time," U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal told reporters at a briefing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
"There is no 'Jan. 15,' " another officer there said, referring to the date the United Nations Security Council had set when it authorized the use of force to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait.
Along the Kuwait and Iraq borders, two more U.S. soldiers were killed before dawn yesterday when a supporting U.S. Apache helicopter mistakenly fired missiles at their vehicles -- a tank and a mobile radar unit. Six other Americans were wounded in the incident. The incident is being investigated, allied officers said.
It was the worst loss from "friendly fire" since seven Marines were killed by a mistaken U.S. jet strike Jan. 29 along the Kuwaiti border. General Neal told reporters that the allies had "a solid program of trying to avoid friendly casualties" but warned that the nature of night operations with fast-moving ground and air machines created "situations where that may occur."
The general added that "if, in fact, we go into a land campaign," there would be "more of what they call the fog of war" that might lead to more confusion and thus more strikes on friendly forces.
A pool dispatch from correspondents in the Persian Gulf said that 31 U.S. amphibious assault ships, loaded with troops, had gathered offshore in preparation for possible landings in Kuwait.
It said four helicopter assault ships carried 30,000 sailors and Marines and their support equipment. The task force completed its fifth practice landing Friday, and Capt. Mike Falkey, commander of the landing ship Portland, was quoted as saying that "morale has actually gone up" since the war began.
The long Saudi border with Kuwait and Iraq, which U.S. ground forces reportedly have not yet crossed to try to drive out dug-in Iraqi troops, was the scene of active cross-fire in yesterday's early-morning hours as U.S. troops initiated seven incidents. The Apache attack on friendly ground vehicles came in one of those incidents, General Neal said.
Lasting from five minutes to two hours, the seven ground skirmishes were the greatest number thus far reported in one day during the month-old war and resulted from what General Neal described as "very aggressive" probes by U.S. troops to test what kind of forces they were confronting.
The Iraqis have also increased their "reconnaissance patrols" along the border, he said, and that contributed to the sharp increase yesterday in firefights. With the threat of a land war, "it's a prudent move on both sides" to try to gauge the other side's strength, the general said.
A military officer in Riyadh who asked not to be identified said that the ground clashes were the result of probes begun by U.S. forces. "We could see them before they could see us," he said.
During those incidents, 20 Iraqi soldiers were taken prisoner -- in one instance, they were herded along by only an airborne helicopter. It was the first time in the war that POWs had been taken by a flying captor.
A total of 1,263 Iraqis have now been taken prisoner, compared to 63 allied soldiers either taken prisoner or listed as missing in action.
President Bush, out for an oceanfront walk yesterday with reporters near his home in Kennebunkport, Maine, showed his ** impatience with Iraq's continued occupation of Kuwait and said he had just been told by Kuwaiti officials of a reported killing and mutilation by Iraqis of "some 200 young people" in the past week.
"We mourn for the innocent," he said. "I hope that we can get an end to that suffering very, very soon. I think we will."
His remarks echoed his repeated suggestions that the allies' aim was an early end to the war, and they seemed to be an indication that the next phase -- ground combat -- was nearing. Mr. Bush refused to comment on a timetable.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Secretary of State James A. Baker III also refused to discuss the timing of possible ground warfare.
Mr. Cheney, appearing on ABC-TV's "This Week with David Brinkley," said that "we are prepared to go the next step, to kick in the next phase of the campaign should that be necessary," but he would not agree with a suggestion that such a step had to come "fairly soon."
Mr. Baker, interviewed on Cable News Network, was asked about French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas' comment that the allies were on "the eve" of a ground assault. The secretary said he would not answer questions "about when it would start," but he said the allies were staying with "our campaign plan."
Both Cabinet officials indicated that they held out little hope that an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait could be achieved by negotiations, including those set to begin tomorrow in Moscow between Soviet President Michael S. Gorbachev and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.
Mr. Baker, while saying "there is nothing to be lost by talking," said the time for negotiations over whether Iraq left Kuwait had long since passed.
Mr. Cheney said, "The only thing [from Iraq] we can really believe is action. . . . We have to see him withdraw from Kuwait."
The capital was saturated with continued speculation over the timing of ground warfare. A CNN correspondent at the Pentagon reported that unidentified officials had said that allied troops were at "maximum readiness" for a ground assault but that this status could be maintained only for the next seven days.
In Riyadh, reporters continued to press for information about a timetable, with General Neal responding that any launch of ground forces would be based on leaders' daily calculations of the threat allied forces would face.
But the intensified probing along the border by both sides appeared to be a strong hint that final ground battle plans were being readied.