The United States and its allies launched a massive ground war against Iraq just hours after Saddam Hussein defied a noon Saturday deadline to withdraw his forces from Kuwait.

President Bush announced the action at the White House Saturday night. He said he made the decision after extensive consultations with the allied partners and his top advisers."Regrettably the noon deadline passed without the agreement of the government of Iraq" to meet the United Nations demand that Baghdad agree to withdraw from Kuwait unconditionally.

"To the contrary, what we have seen is a redoubling of Saddam Hussein's efforts to destroy Kuwait and its people," Bush said. "I have therefore directed Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf to use all forces available, including ground forces, to eject the Iraqi army from Kuwait. "

Bush, looking somber, said he had complete confidence that U.S. and allied forces would "swiftly and decisively accomplish their mission."

The president asked all Americans to "stop what you are doing and say a prayer for all the coalition forces, and especially our men and women in uniform who at this very moment are risking their lives for all of us."

Bush took no questions, heading immediately for the Oval Office. He was at Camp David in the Maryland mountains when the first word that the ground war had started became public.

Bush on Friday announced that Iraq had until noon Saturday EST to begin withdrawing from Kuwait - occupied by Iraqi troops since Aug. 2 - and warned that a ground war could begin any time after the deadline passed.

It was not clear just when the attack began, but first reports of the launch began to surface a little more than eight hours past the deadline.

When the United Nations' Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to quit Kuwait expired, Bush waited 18 hours before ordering the air war on Iraq and occupied Kuwait.Hopes were raised briefly Saturday at the United Nations that Saddam might be ready to comply with the U.S. demands for withdrawal. The Soviets told a closed session of the U.N. Security Council that the Iraqi foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, had a "positive response to the U.S. proposal."

But as the day progressed, it appeared Iraq had only "responded positively" to the Soviet peace proposal, which had been rejected earlier by the White House.

Soviet spokesman Vitaly Ignatenko said President Mikhail Gorbachev had urged Bush in a phone conversation Saturday to postpone the beginning of a ground war for a day or two to give diplomacy more time to work.

Besides speaking with Gorbachev Saturday, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the president talked with Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu of Japan and President Turgut Ozal of Turkey.

"President Bush thanked President Gorbachev for his extensive efforts and reflected our general disappointment that Saddam Hussein has chosen not to respond positively," Fitzwater said in a statement.

Military officials said that in the final hours before the U.S. ground war started, Iraqi soldiers had intensified their destruction of Kuwait oil facilities and started "a systematic campaign of execution."

"It seems like a terror campaign is going on within Kuwait and Kuwait City in particular," Marine Brig. Gen. Richard Neal, a Central Command spokesman, said at a briefing. "It seems to have become endemic now in the last 24 to 48 hours."

Neal said Iraqis were killing people they had previously tortured, "destroying the evidence," and also grabbing Kuwaitis off the street in Kuwait City "and executing them."

"I don't want to say mass executions, but I will say early reports indicate to us they are carrying out a campaign of terror."

Military officials said 200 oil wells are burning in Kuwait, with another 100 sabotaged or destroyed earlier.

"Approximately 25 percent of Kuwait is covered with varying degrees of smoke," Neal said, although a northwest wind was blowing much of it into the gulf. He said the destruction was aimed at wells, terminals and production facilities.

McConnell said the Iraqis have begun dynamiting buildings in downtown Kuwait City. "It's even worse than we thought," he said.

The Soviets worked up until the noon deadline trying to get Aziz to accept terms agreeable to the allies.

Aziz, who had been in Moscow since Thursday, held a news conference before returning to Baghdad Saturday, telling reporters that he was authorized to declare Iraq's acceptance of the latest Soviet peace proposal - not the U.S. proposal.

U.S. ground forces engaged Iraqis in at least three separate incidents Saturday, taking 143 Iraqis prisoner in the process and destroying more tanks, armored vehicles and artillery.

To date, Iraq has lost 1,685 of its 4,200 tanks in the Kuwait theater, 925 of 2,800 armored personnel carriers and 1,485 of 3,100 artillery pieces, Neal said, adding that Saddam is no longer able to repair equipment destroyed by the Allies.

The most intensive ground conflict Saturday occurred at 9 a.m. Saudi time when U.S. Marines engaged 12 Iraqi tanks and Iraqi infantry. Neal said the Marines destroyed four of the tanks with TOW missiles, and the remaining eight tanks fled. The infantry left behind surrendered, and U.S. forces took 143 prisoners.

So far, only 24 Americans have died in combat, 30 are missing and nine have been taken prisoner.

Despite the threat of seasonal sandstorms that might affect high-tech American weapons, the weather now is about as good as it gets for desert warfare, a military weather officer said. He said conditions in the Arabian Peninsula in February are generally cold, windy and dry.


(Additional Information)

Allies take island

The Kuwaiti news Agency, quoting an unidentified Arab military source, reported taht allied forces had "liberated" Failaka, 12 miles northeast of Kuwait City.

The agency, which is run by the exiled Kuwaiti government, said allied forces destroyed a number of Iraqi tanks on the island and took prisoner most of the 500 to 1,000 Iraqi troops there.