President Bush said Tuesday he is sending the top two U.S. military men to Saudi Arabia to determine whether a ground assault against Iraqi forces is necessary, but he emphasized that this does not mean that he is close to a decision on land fighting in the Persian Gulf war.
In the Persian Gulf, the USS Missouri shelled Iraqi positions in Kuwait for the second straight day, and Pentagon sources said its sister ship, the USS Wisconsin, soon will join in the offshore shelling.A U.S. military spokesman said about 10 more Iraqi planes have flown to neighboring Iran, and Pentagon sources said Iraq might try another cross-border raid.
A top Soviet diplomat flew to Tehran to discuss an Iranian peace initiative, and Iraq suspended fuel supplies to civilians, indicating that allied air strikes against the Iraqi infrastructure have been successful.
Bush said he is sending Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "later this week" on a short trip to the Saudi desert to get a "firsthand status report" on the war from Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. commander of allied forces.
The president said among the news he is expecting from the meeting is when and whether it will be necessary to mount a ground offensive against Iraqi troops to drive them out of occupied Kuwait.
"Would air power alone get the job done?" the president asked at the briefing. "My own view is I'm somewhat skeptical that it would, but I am very anxious to hear" from the top military commanders on the question.
But Bush stressed that Cheney and Powell's trip did not indicate that he is close to a decision on a ground war.
"I will have to make that decision, if we go to ground forces, and I will do it on serious consideration of the recommendations of our military, including our secretary of defense and the chairman (Powell), of course, but also of our commanders in the field," Bush said.
But Bush echoed his field commanders when he expressed skepticism that allied forces could avoid staging a full-scale ground assault, which could result in heavy casualties on both sides and could represent Saddam's best chance to use chemical weapons on allied forces.In the gulf, the Missouri trained its 16-inch guns on Iraqi artillery positions on the Kuwaiti coast and its 2,000-pound shells found their targets, the Pentagon said. On Monday the Missouri opened fire for the first time since the Korean War, targeting Iraqi concrete-reinforced bunkers in Kuwait.
Ready to join the Missouri in the shelling was the Wisconsin, which also is equipped with heavy artillery, to join in the shelling of enemy targets, according to a Pentagon official who requested anonymity.
Discussing the increased bombing and shelling of enemy positions in Kuwait and southern Iraq, one senior official said, "It's like poking into a rotten board. Once you poke through, you can go like blazes."
Marine Maj. Gen. Robert Johnston of the U.S. Central Command in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said about 10 more Iraqi planes have flown to Iran, bringing the number to about 110. Previous U.S. military estimates put the number at 98.
Royal Air Force Group Capt. Niall Irving, a British military spokesman, said in Riyadh that Iraq appeared to be preparing planes for flight, turning on search radars to make sure no allied planes were nearby, then making a dash into Iran.
Saudi Arabia said several foreigners were arrested for an attack in the Red Sea port of Jiddah late Sunday night on a bus carrying U.S. soldiers in which two of them and their Saudi guard were slightly injured by flying glass.
Baghdad Radio, monitored in Cairo, Egypt, said Iraq is suspending all fuel sales to the public until further notice, citing "technical damage to oil installations." This supported reports by allied military commanders that air raids on Iraq were badly damaging Iraq's economic and military infrastructure.
So far Iraq had imposed only fuel rationing, permitting motorists to obtain small amounts of gasoline every week. The sale of heating fuel already had been stopped in the middle of Iraq's cold winter.
A senior Pentagon officer, meanwhile, suggested that Iraq, which has no air reconnaissance or satellites, might try another foray into Saudi Arabia in coming days to seek intelligence on allied positions. The Iraqi force could approach division strength of perhaps 10,000, he said.
"It's very safe to expect in a few days that we will see an effort to probe our lines," the official said. "With no air (reconnassaince) and no satellites, he has to do it the old-fashioned way."
In other developments:
- Radio Baghdad quoted a war communique as saying allied jet fighters struck residential and commercial areas in Iraq 373 times and that four enemy aircraft were shot down. It did not say when or where the planes were downed.
- A Radio Baghdad broadcast also said Bush is guilty of "the crime of the age" because of civilian casualties in Iraq, and a separate commentary said Saudi King Fahd would be killed by his own people for lying by saying allied troops were in Saudi Arabia for defense only.
- The government-supervised newspaper Al Akhbar in Cairo, Egypt, reported that Saddam sent a message to Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat "accusing him of being a traitor" for not returning to Baghdad after attending the funeral of two aides slain in Tunis, Tunisia. The newspaper said the message said Arafat fled the Iraqi capital "to avoid the war."
- Gunmen fired at the home of Saudi Consul General Gaqar Ghazaz in Karachi, Pakistan, injuring a guard, police said. It was unclear whether the attack was related to the Persian Gulf war.
- Syrian and Iraqi forces exchanged fire near the Saudi border, in the first reported combat by Syria in the war.