WASHINGTON -- Only hours after President Bush responded coolly to a Soviet peace plan, the military announced yesterday that U.S.-led forces in the Persian Gulf are now prepared to wage a land war against Iraq.
"We are ready now," said Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
His declaration about the combat readiness of coalition forces, made at the Pentagon's daily war briefing, was the first by a U.S. official, although officials have privately been saying much the same thing for several days.
The statement came two months after the second-ranking U.S. commander in the gulf, Lt. Gen. Calvin A. H. Waller, stirred controversy by telling reporters that U.S. forces "will not be ready for combat activities" until as late as mid-February.
With a half-million allied soldiers massed in the northern Saudi Arabian desert, U.S. commanders insisted that the swirl of last-minute diplomatic activity aimed at averting a potentially bloody ground battle was having no impact on military preparations.
And even as officials said they were awaiting Mr. Bush's order to open the ground phase of the gulf war, there were fresh reports from the battlefront indicating that a new phase of the campaign may, in effect, already have begun.
For the first time, U.S. infantry troops, supported by tanks and tank-like armored vehicles, crossed the border into Iraqi-held territory, combat correspondents reported.
The action, which took place over the weekend, involved a raid by elements of the 24th Infantry Division on a border post, about a half-mile behind Iraqi lines, that had been abandoned by Iraqi troops after an allied artillery barrage.
That foray was followed Monday by at least two Army assaults north of the Saudi border, one by helicopter-borne U.S. troops who took 52 Iraqi prisoners from two fortified desert bunkers, and another by Army Apache gunships against artillery positions 50 miles inside Iraqi-held territory.
As allied aircraft continued to pummel Iraqi ground positions in Kuwait and southern Iraq, the U.S. Central Command announced that a tank-killing A-10 Thunderbolt jet had been downed over Iraqi-held territory. The status of the pilot was unknown.
One U.S. soldier was wounded when a U.S. unit was hit by 20 to 30 Iraqi artillery or mortar rounds during a border skirmish.
And the guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton, damaged Monday an Iraqi mine off the Kuwaiti coast, was taken out of action, officials said. The explosion jammed the ship's port rudder and caused a leak in the port propeller shaft. The Princeton had been providing protection to a minesweeping armada clearing the way for a possible amphibious assault.
Officials said they suspected the vessel was damaged by a bottom mine packing up to 1,500 pounds of explosives. It was one of 16 types of mine believed to be used by Iraq, they said.
The mine incidents involving the Princeton and the helicopter carrier USS Tripoli led to the discovery of an Iraqi naval minefield across a major shipping lane, according to military sources.
U.S. officials also disclosed that 578 Iraqi troops had surrendered to Turkish forces, the first confirmation of desertions from Iraqi units on the country's northern border.
The report was in line with increasingly downbeat assessments on the status of Iraq's half-million-man army, which has suffered "horrendous casualties," according to Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal, deputy operations director of the U.S. Central Command.
General Kelly told reporters that Iraqi forces "will be defeated in short order if we initiate a ground campaign."
"They're having difficulty just replacing the food and water that their soldiers consume, and we have indications that their soldiers are very hungry," he said, adding that Iraq's elite Republican Guard troops continue to be hit hard and are not in good shape.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, in testimony before a House Appropriations subcommittee, said that between 30 percent and percent of Iraq's heavy armor had been destroyed, a figure that the subcommittee's chairman, Representative John P. Murtha, D-Pa., called very conservative. Mr. Murtha, just back from Saudi Arabia, indicated that U.S. field commanders thought the actual figure was 10 percent to 15 percent higher.
As allied commanders announced that their ground forces were now combat-ready, their comments also suggested that the military had begun to consider that the war might end with something less than the all-out land battle many had anticipated.
"Anyone who has been in war doesn't want to go to war again," General Neal said. "And I don't think anyone will feel cheated that, in fact, we may not have executed the complete campaign plan."
Asked how long Iraq might need to withdraw its forces from Kuwait, General Neal said he "couldn't give you a timetable" but indicated it might take 30 to 45 days.
British Army Col. Barry Stevens told reporters in Saudi Arabia, "Many of the soldiers I have spoken to are very conscious of the fact that if Saddam Hussein retreats from this mess he's got himself into with any semblance of power, that they may well find themselves back here in two years, five years, 10 years. And they don't want that."
In other war-related developments:
* Pentagon officials for the first time released a reconnaissance photograph of damage caused by U.S. bombing of Iraq. The picture, of a mosque in the heavily bombed southern city of Basra, showed what U.S. officials said was damage feigned by Iraq to make it appear that the religious structure had been struck by bombs.
* Saudi scientists said the Persian Gulf oil slick, widely reported have been the largest in history, was much smaller than originally estimated. Abdullah Dabbagh, director of research at the University of Petroleum and Minerals, said 1.5 million barrels of crude had been spilled into the gulf since the war began -- one-tenth the original estimate.
* Another Iraqi Scud missile hit Israel. There were no reports of injuries or damage from the rocket.