WASHINGTON -- As U.S.-led forces edged closer to a land war with Iraq, two Navy ships were damaged by mines in the northern Persian Gulf, it was announced yesterday.
Pentagon sources said all the elements for an allied ground assault were now in place. Intensified skirmishes along the northern Saudi border in recent days -- involving ground patrols, artillery and rocket fire, and helicopter and jet attacks on Iraqi armored units -- indicate that the full allied force is in position to launch an attack, they said.
In the gulf itself, seven sailors were injured, one seriously, when two vessels -- the amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli and the Aegis cruiser USS Princeton -- were hit by mines early yesterday.
They were the first U.S. vessels damaged by mines since the war began.
The incidents took place as allied ships approached the Kuwaiti coast, a step that indicated the allied campaign was proceeding toward a ground assault even as Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev was pursuing a diplomatic effort to end the conflict.
There was widespread speculation that President Bush would hold off any wide-scale ground war while Moscow's peace initiative was pending. But White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said no one should assume that Mr. Bush would delay a ground assault if his commanders told him they were ready.
There were fresh indications that a land war could be imminent.
The pace of allied air strikes against Iraqi troops and armor in the deserts of Kuwait and southern Iraq continued to escalate, officials confirmed. More than 870 combat missions were flown Sunday night and yesterday despite poor weather.
Officials say allied commander Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf has to decide whether relentless aerial strikes have beaten down Iraq's military forces to the point that coalition troops would suffer minimal casualties in a land assault. A senior U.S. general said yesterday there was no reason to hurry into the next phase of the campaign.
"It's probably to our advantage to have the air campaign go on because, of course, every day our aviation elements are in the air, they're inflicting casualties against [Iraq's] front-line forces and those second- and third-echelon forces," said Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal, deputy operations director for the Central Command. He brushed aside suggestions that allied ground troops would lose their edge if forced to wait too long to begin their assault.
Coalition warplanes are now destroying nearly 200 Iraqi tanks a day, senior military officials said.
At the current rate, half of Iraq's 4,200 deeply dug-in tanks could be out of commission by the end of the week. A 50 percent destruction figure has often been cited, unofficially, as the point at which a ground war could begin with a minimum of allied casualties, since military authorities do not believe units with half their equipment destroyed can fight as capable, cohesive forces.
Pentagon planners had expected to reach this point after three weeks of fighting, but progress of the coalition effort was delayed by weather and by a need to divert planes to the hunt for Iraq's Scud missiles, sources said.
Even as Iraq's foreign minister was in Moscow discussing the Soviet peace proposal, Iraq's ruling Baath Party newspaper appeared to be preparing the nation for an allied invasion. It insisted that Iraq's armed forces retained the capacity to wage a "ground battle which will guarantee the decisive victory."
Responding to Bush administration predictions that a land war would be quick and violent, Iraq's army newspaper, Al-Qadissiyah, declared, "All the assertions of President Bush will only be met by the Iraqi people with sarcasm and ridicule."
Along the southern rim of the battle zone, ground skirmishing continued as allied forces fired artillery and flew aerial strikes against front-line Iraqi positions. As many as a half-million U.S. bTC and allied troops are believed to be massed along the northern Saudi desert, ready to face an equal number of Iraqi soldiers.
"Our forces are moving," said General Neal. "We continue to keep moving them laterally and north and south along the board, not only for training purposes . . . but also so that we can confuse the intelligence-gathering capabilities of the enemy."
Pentagon officials said all the elements for a ground war were in place. Vast amounts of supplies -- "beans and bullets," ammunition, fuel, spare parts, vehicles, food -- have been moved far forward and are ready to support around-the-clock combat.
Other "precursor" steps also have been taken. Marines have finished final rehearsals for amphibious operations and have moved closer to the Kuwati coast. Army units are in the last stages of preparations, doing forward reconnaissance to be sure of the terrain and the disposition of Iraqi forces, U.S. officials said.
A French general was more direct.
"We are prepared to attack, if necessary . . . tomorrow," Brig. Gen. Daniel Gazeau, deputy commander of the French contingent, told reporters.
The offensive could begin with numerous small-unit actions all along the border -- "throwing sand in their eyes," as one source put it. Meanwhile, mass movements of allied troops and equipment would hit the Iraqi forces where they are weakest. If the Iraqis try to counter, they would be open to attack by missiles, rockets and guns of airplanes and by ambushes from tanks.
General Neal said allied ground forces were "basically" staying south of the Saudi border. He denied reports from correspondents that scouting patrols already were venturing into Iraq or Kuwait. But he acknowledged that the 600-mile-long border was a somewhat imprecise concept in the middle of the desert.
A U.S. F-16 pilot was rescued after his fighter jet went down in Iraqi-held territory, 40 miles north of the Saudi border. It was the 30th coalition aircraft lost in combat, including 21 U.S. craft.
In the waters of the gulf, an Iraqi mine blew a 16-by-20 foot hole in the forward hull of the USS Tripoli, the flagship of an allied minesweeping flotilla off the Kuwaiti coast. Four seamen suffered minor injuries.
The predawn accident flooded several compartments of the 18,000-ton helicopter assault ship.
The ship appeared to have hit a contact mine tethered just beneath the water's surface, skipper Capt. Bruce McEwan said.
Less than three hours later and 10 miles away, the guided missile cruiser USS Princeton, one of the warships apparently protecting the minesweepers, also was damaged by a mine. Three sailors were injured.
The explosion, which damaged one of the Princeton's two propellers and forced the ship to operate at half-power, appeared to have been caused by an "influence" mine, the military announced. More sophisticated and powerful than a contact mine, influence mines are triggered by magnetic force or by the sound or pressure from a passing vessel.