WASHINGTON -- Bush administration officials struggled yesterday, with little apparent success, to dampen expectations of a quick, crushing victory in the Persian Gulf war.
Glowing reports from the battlefront fed predictions of a rapid end to the land campaign. Analysts both inside and outside the government said that the hard fighting would be over in three or four days.
It seemed clear that President Bush and other coalition leaders were aiming to humiliate Iraq militarily, in hopes of forcing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power. But Secretary of State James A. Baker III said that the U.S. peace proposal announced last week remains on the table and could still be accepted by Iraq.
Although the land campaign was only in its first day, attention already was shifting to postwar issues.
Mr. Baker said again that the Arab-Israeli conflict would have to be addressed in the aftermath of the fighting. Other sensitive postwar issues include the question of whether the allies plan to occupy southern Iraq as a bargaining chip in peace negotiations and precisely what the long-term role of U.S. military forces in the Middle East would be.
Administration officials have been swift to adopt a cautionary tone on these issues.
"I don't think we ought to underestimate the difficulty that will be involved in securing the peace in the aftermath of winning the war," Mr. Baker said on ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley."
Despite official efforts to cushion public opinion against possible setbacks as the ground campaign proceeds, military sources said that they believed the land assault was proceeding much better than anticipated and that the Iraqis would soon be forced from Kuwait.
"The president is quite gratified by the pace and effectiveness of the operation," said Marlin Fitzwater, the White House spokesman.
The limp Iraqi military response had actually been forecast by some Arab leaders, who predicted as far back as August that "the Iraqi forces would not fight," Mr. Baker noted.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, interviewed on CBS' "Face the Nation," said he was "pleasantly surprised that things are going as well as they have and that the resistance is as limited as it is."
Administration officials sought to contain elation in hopes of preventing the sort of mood swings that occurred at the start of last month's air campaign.
"My fears are that there's too much optimism," said Brent Scowcroft, the president's national security adviser. "The operations are going well. But he [Mr. Hussein] still does have a very formidable army, and I think we need to be cautious about euphoria."
With little bad news coming from the battle zone, the Defense Department unexpectedly modified its news blackout, imposed late Saturday night, after less than 12 hours.
Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the supreme allied commander in the gulf, gave reporters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, an upbeat assessment of initial ground fighting. Combat reports from correspondents accompanying allied forces into battle were cleared for public consumption rather than being delayed for up to two days as originally planned.
Amid fresh indications that the Iraqi military was in a state of
collapse, military analysts forecast a speedy end to the climactic ground phase of the war.
"We always thought that the ground war . . . was either going to be a matter of three [or] four days or three or four weeks," said Representative Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "I think all indications are now that it's three or four days."
Mr. Aspin said on "Face the Nation" that there were indications that the 150,000-strong Republican Guards, Iraq's most respected fighting force, were putting up relatively little resistance. "The real test" would not come until allied forces move into portions of southern Iraq where Guard troops are in heavily reinforced bunkers, he added.
As U.S. forces swept northward into Iraq in an effort to isolate Iraqi forces in southern portions of the country and in occupied Kuwait, administration officials refused to confirm reports that the allied coalition would continue to occupy southern Iraq after Kuwait is liberated.
Mr. Baker said on ABC that coalition forces would not occupy "all of Iraq" but did not answer the question of an allied occupation of the southern portion of the country as a buffer to prevent attacks against Kuwait and as a lever to force Iraqi concessions during any peace talks.
Bush administration officials also declined to say how soon a postwar pullout of U.S. forces might begin and how large a contingent would have to remain.
Although Mr. Bush has spoken frequently of the withdrawal of all U.S. troops once the war ends, Mr. Cheney has said only that he envisions no "large" U.S. ground presence in the Middle East. Other officials have speculated that about 20,000 troops might be permanently stationed there, in addition to enhanced air force and naval deployments.
Arab countries historically have resisted any U.S. troop presence in the region.
U.S. officials continue to deny that removing Mr. Hussein from power is among their war aims, although Mr. Scowcroft acknowledged that a military defeat would "hopefully" lessen the Iraqi leader's chances for political survival.
Sheik Saud Nasir al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, said his country's government, once returned to power, would demand that United Nations resolutions calling for reparations be enforced "because there are so many people who have been damaged, not just Kuwaitis."
Administration officials said that Iraq's "scorched-earth policy" in Kuwait was a principal factor in Mr. Bush's decision not to delay the ground campaign. They denied that his timing was hastened by the peace initiative of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, agreed to by Iraq, which called for a three-week pullout instead of the one-week withdrawal demanded by the coalition.
Mr. Baker said on ABC that the decision to move into the ground phase was "not really" influenced by the Soviet initiative since Mr. Bush had approved a Feb. 23 starting date more than a week earlier.
Insisting he was not naive about Soviet intentions, Mr. Baker said that after extensive contacts in recent days with top Soviet officials, he is convinced Mr. Gorbachev is not seeking to destabilize the Mideast.
"I do think they feel it is important that they play a role," the secretary of state said, adding that "they can contribute if the role that they play is positive."
Mr. Baker said that the Soviets had been a "negative" factor in the Middle East in the past but that "ever since the third of August, when they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States, at least with respect to the gulf crisis, they have played a positive role."