Iraq's elaborate fortifications in Kuwait, including trenches filled with flammable oil products, are complicating American military planning, a senior Marine Corps officer says.

Gen. John R. Dailey, the deputy commandant of the Marines, said Monday that U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region are capable of overcoming any Iraqi defense, although he stressed that President Bush has given no order to conduct an offensive against Iraq.Dailey also said that the Marines have not been told to expand the size of their 45,000-troop force in the gulf area. He said adding troops remained a possibility, and that about 55,000 Marines in the United States have been readied for possible deployment.

The general said the prospect of Iraq raising an oil-fed wall of fire around its defensive positions on Kuwait's southern border with Saudi Arabia and along its eastern gulf shoreline added a new twist to U.S. contingency planning.

"With the dust and smoke mixed it's going to be hard to see targets ahead, and that will impact on the tactical air (support) and the artillery and the naval gunfire," he said. "So all the supporting arms are degraded to some extent."

Even so, Dailey said, the Marines are trained to handle unusual obstacles.

"One of the ways we would get through these tank traps is to fill them in with bulldozers that would come in and push sand down the side, which would tend to put the fires out," he said.

"For all the things he's doing we have techniques to breach," Dailey said. "A firewall we could drive through in any of the equipment we have, unless it was so wide that it would burn all of the oxygen and the engines wouldn't run."

The general said fires, even if they included oil-fed blazes offshore from Kuwait City, would not stop an amphibious landing. He said troops could be taken ashore in their amphibious assault vehicles, which are routinely tested against fire damage. Heavy equipment such as tanks would hit the beaches aboard landing craft that move across water and ground on an air cushion.

Helicopters could simply fly beyond the fire obstacles, and airplanes such as the Marines' AV-8B Harrier jump jets could help clear the way for ground forces, Dailey said.

An amphibious assault force of about 11,000 Marines has been afloat in the gulf since early in the crisis. It is practicing amphibious landings in the northern Arabian Sea.


(Additional information)

Oil prices decline

World oil prices declined on news of falling global demand and rising output by the OPEC cartel, as the rumor-sated crude market focused on supply-demand fundamentals instead of possible war in the Middle East.

On the New York Mercantile Exchange, West Texas Intermediate for December delivery ended down $2.04 from Friday to $31.96 a barrel, after having sold for as low as $31.80 a barrel in Monday's trading.

For a while it appeared the market was trading in a range of $33-$36 a barrel. Now it looks like the low end of the range will be $28-$30 a barrel.