RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- U.S. and allied ground forces crossed yesterday into Iraqi-held territory to carry out raids and prepare for possible large-scale land battles.
As the preparations went on, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein made a radio speech that seemingly rejected a Soviet proposal to withdraw from Kuwait -- but in an announcement made in Moscow hours later, Iraq agreed to withdraw from Kuwait under an eight-point plan.
Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal, the See WAR, 4A, Col. 1WAR, from 1AU.S. military spokesman, confirmed that U.S. troops were crossing the border and gradually extending their reach north, but he said that the forces continued to return to Saudi Arabia after each operation.
They were joined yesterday by Saudi troops, who crossed the border for the first time. General Neal and a Saudi spokesman indicated that coalition forces were initiating actions, responding to Iraqi attacks and carrying out reconnaissance missions.
The U.S.-led forces are clearing a series of paths through a maze of Iraqi ground fortifications stretching more than 100 miles along the border with Saudi Arabia, a Pentagon official said.
"We don't want the enemy to know what gaps we plan to use, but when it comes down to actually doing it, it's not going to be an easy job," said Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly.
A senior U.S. officer said meanwhile that Mr. Hussein's harsh radio broadcast suggested that the Iraqi president was ignoring damage to his forces by five weeks of around-the-clock allied air strikes.
"He's out of touch with his military forces," the officer said. "He's out of touch with his population, or doesn't care about them."
Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the overall allied commander, has said that Iraq is losing more than 100 tanks a day to allied bombardments and has already lost at least a quarter of its total tank force, along with a similar proportion of its artillery.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney was equally gloomy about the prospects for an Iraqi withdrawal. "His latest comments don't give anyone much hope that he's prepared to withdraw voluntarily," Mr. Cheney said. "Therefore, we have no choice but to proceed with the military campaign."
Mr. Cheney said allied forces were preparing for "one of the largest land assaults of modern times," although officials said President Bush had not yet ordered the ground campaign to begin.
The intensity of the ground clash, according to General Kelly, would "rank right up there with the best of them." He compared it to the most violent battles of World War I and World War II. U.S. ground troops are "uptight and ready to go," he added.
In its most recent military actions, Iraq gave no hint that it was abandoning attempts to strike allied forces. Iraq for the first time launched two Frog rockets -- solid-fueled ground-to-ground missiles -- and struck a unit of Senegalese troops in Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials said eight of the soldiers were injured, two seriously.
Iraq also fired three Scud missiles at Saudi Arabia's King Khalid Military City, a major staging area for air and ground forces. Saudi officials said the missiles were intercepted by Patriot anti-missile batteries, with the debris falling into the desert without causing any damage or injuries.
Later in the day, Scuds came hurtling toward Dhahran, but that attack also was thwarted.
As described by allied officers, Iraqi units are unable to leave their defensive positions because of the air strikes but risk being decimated if they remain in place. Officers maintain that a substantial number of Iraqi units have lost much of their equipment, suffered high casualties and encountered growing morale problems.
Iraqi soldiers captured Wednesday said their officers were required to sign pledges making the officers personally responsible for desertions, according to U.S. officials. Soldiers also reported being required to sign a document in which they promised not to desert.
But some or all units of Iraq's Republican Guards remain a formidable force, officers say. Most of the Republican Guards, comprising Iraq's best tank and infantry units, are said by U.S. officers to be positioned in southern Iraq, just north of the Kuwaiti border.
U.S. officers suggest that an all-out ground offensive would require a large U.S. force sweeping through southern Iraq to engage those troops. About 150,000 soldiers belonging to the Republican Guards were in or near Kuwait when the war began, positioned in the area where their units regularly trained.
"You simply can't ignore it if you're intent on winning," a senior officer said. "There are some veteran units out there, if you don't go after them just right, they'll kick your butt."
Other parts of the remaining Iraqi forces are described as considerably less formidable. General Neal said the soldiers who surrendered Wednesday at a bunker complex inside Iraq appeared to be tired, poorly fed and poorly equipped for war. A U.S. intelligence officer said that some Iraqi units are now being forced to go as long as four days without fresh water and that soldiers are sometimes provided salt water to drink instead.
"In his rush to get even more forces down into the Kuwaiti theater of operations, I think he has ill-prepared, ill-armed and ill-trained some of these folks," General Neal said.
"I think this organization might be evidence of just that type of effort."
Officials said the total number of Iraqis captured at the bunkers was 421, including a battalion commander and his staff. U.S. forces returned to the area yesterday, took an additional 14 soldiers prisoner and hauled away documents.
For the first time since the early days of the war, the military confirmed that a U.S. serviceman had been taken prisoner by the Iraqis. He was identified as Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey D. Fox, 39, the ninth American reported as being in Iraqi hands.
In a non-combat accident, the deadliest involving U.S. troops since the war began, seven U.S. servicemen were killed yesterday in the crash of an Army medevac helicopter in Saudi Arabia. The four crew members and three passengers reportedly died when the UH-60 Blackhawk crashed while attempting to land in bad weather.
Meantime, it was reported that the commander of a battalion of U.S. Apache helicopters has been relieved of his post after he mistakenly fired on two U.S. armored vehicles Sunday, killing two U.S. soldiers. The Associated Press reported that officers in the 1st Infantry Division said Army Lt. Col. Ralph Hayles of Corpus Christi, Texas, had violated division guidelines that commanding officers were not to personally engage enemy forces.
Six U.S. soldiers were also wounded in the incident, which occurred in Iraqi territory just north of the Saudi border when an infantry task force was attacked by an Iraqi armored column.
In other reported action, two U.S. pilots were killed Wednesday night when their Army OH-58 helicopter crashed as it was returning from a reconnaissance mission. Another pilot was rescued after he ejected from his F-16 when the aircraft suffered zTC engine failure during airborne refueling.
The largest reported ground action was an artillery barrage by British and U.S. forces against Iraqi tanks and artillery positions. A spokesman for British forces said it was the heaviest allied barrage to date, involving 72 British guns, 12 multiple rocket launchers and at least an equal number of U.S. weapons.
At least six clashes were reported by U.S. forces, involving U.S. helicopters, aircraft and ground forces and leading to the destruction of Iraqi anti-aircraft guns, armored vehicles and communications equipment.
Officials said weather hampered air strikes, reducing the number of missions to 2,400, compared with 2,900 Wednesday. More than 800 missions were against targets in and around Kuwait.