Brought fresh assessments from the front on Operation Desert Storm, President Bush weighed a decision Monday on when to augment the heaviest air war in history with a ground assault against Iraqi troops in Kuwait.

Bush pondered the timing of the ground offensive in a meeting with Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, just back from a quick trip to Saudi Arabia to gauge the progress of the war.There was no sign final decisions were at hand. Military commanders emphasized the round-the-clock air war was continuing to pay off and would be used to further soften up the Iraqi military before any major push by allied ground forces.

Until that phase of the war begins to show decidedly diminishing returns, Bush also was under pressure from Congress to go slow before facing the potentially heavy costs - in men and materiel - of a bloody ground campaign.

While in Saudi Arabia, Cheney suggested the ground war may begin not as an all-out attack, but as a series of smaller moves to probe and flush Iraqi tanks and troops out of their fortifications, making them vulnerable to allied air and land forces.

In an almost non-stop flurry of diplomacy related to the war, Bush met Monday with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens and scheduled meetings Tuesday with British Defense Minister Tom King and French Defense Minister Pierre Joxe.

Though described as routine, those consultations come amid a swirl of preparations in Washington, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere for the land war that increasingly has become regarded as inevitable.

Weather and the approach of the Muslim holy season have been factors in the timing of that escalation. Bush, however, has said only that the call will come "at the right time," dictated by allied military objectives and not by Saddam.

The White House, meanwhile, accused Saddam Hussein of waging a "propaganda and PR battle" for world sympathy by exaggerating the civilian deaths, injuries and destruction sustained from relentless allied bombing raids.

More "disturbing," White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater told reporters, were indications Saddam was deriving some success from his "very extensive PR effort" to divert world attention from his own aggression to the civilian costs of war.

In particular, Fitzwater pointed to weekend criticism by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev of the extent of that destruction. While there have been civilian casualties, Fitzwater said, "We don't think it's been very extensive."

Fitzwater also seized on Iraq's rejection of an ill-defined peace overture from Iran to charge that Saddam "remains defiant and unrepentent" - further proof, he said, that the United States and its allies "had no choice" but to go to war once diplomacy failed to resolve the Persian Gulf crisis.

The Soviet Union sent special envoy Yevgeny Primakov to Baghdad Monday in hope of discussing the gulf war with Saddam. Primakov carried no specific peace initiative, Soviet lawmaker Alexander Dzasokhov said in Moscow, adding that the envoy would take up the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait and other issues with Saddam.

Meanwhile, Senate leaders urged Bush to stick with the air war for now.

"There are plenty of targets left in Iraq and Kuwait," Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., said Sunday on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press."

Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, said, "I think the air war can continue successfully for some time."