President Bush, in an emotional tour of three southern military bases, yesterday told the families of servicemen and women in the gulf that the United States and its allies -- and not Iraq -- would determine when and if Operation Desert Storm becomes a ground war.

"It will only begin if necessary, and when we decide the time is right," Bush told an audience at Fort Stewart, Ga., home of the 24th Infantry Division that was deployed to Saudia Arabia in August. "We will conduct this conflict on our terms, on our timetable, not on {Iraqi President} Saddam Hussein's timetable."

Bush confidently asserted that the war is "right on course," although he said tougher days may lie ahead. "When we win, and we will, we will have taught a dangerous dictator, and any tyrant tempted to follow in his footsteps, that the U.S. has a new credibility, and that what we say goes, and that there is no place for lawless aggression in the Persian Gulf," the president declared.

Bush's comments came as shooting subsided along the Saudi-Kuwaiti border and U.S. Navy warships fired another 19 Tomahawk missiles, at least two of which appeared to have smashed into Baghdad residential neighborhoods.

Allied officials attempted to sort out Iraqi troop movements in the wake of a failed, four-pronged attack into Saudi Arabia Tuesday and Wednesday. U.S. strategists believe that Iraq may have hoped to lure allied units into a premature ground war and disrupt plans to continue the massive bombardment by U.S.-led air forces for at least another week or two before a ground offensive is launched.

As Saudi troops consolidated their grip on the embattled town of Khafji -- rounding up an estimated 500 Iraqi prisoners and collecting the bodies of about 30 Iraqi soldiers -- allied bombers again pounded targets in southern Kuwait yesterday. Contrary to many press reports that had suggested Iraqi armored forces were massing for a major offensive into Saudi Arabia, a senior U.S. official in Riyadh said "there is no major buildup" and "all the movement we see out there tonight is to the north."

U.S. intelligence officials, while still groping for clarity in the ground action of the last few days, have concluded that some Iraqi units moved into extreme southern Kuwait for the four-pronged attack that involved roughly 2,000 soldiers. The blunting of that attack and subsequent allied air strikes caused confused movements by Iraqi troops behind the vanguard of attackers. Some allied officers, including the British, reported "a very large concentration of vehicles and tanks" some miles back from the border, but that evidently did not presage another attack.

Despite the confusion, the allies concurred that Iraq's attack had been "a clear military disaster" for Baghdad, as Group Capt. Niall Irving of the Royal Air Force put it yesterday.

In yet another example of the remarkable immediacy that videotape has given this war, a British television crew visiting a wrecked factory in the Iraqi capital rushed outside in time to film several Tomahawk cruise missiles roaring low overhead at 550 mph. Crossing Baghdad from west to east at 11 a.m. (3 a.m. EST), an estimated five or six Tomahawks -- each carrying a 1,000-pound warhead -- smashed into the city. Correspondents subsequently were taken to two residential areas which reportedly had been hit, perhaps by missiles that were shot down or that went awry, and to two hospitals where 11 wounded civilians were being treated.

The Tomahawk strikes renewed the controversy over whether the allied bombardment is causing excessive civilian casualties. Iraqi radio yesterday accused allied airmen of firing machine guns at crowds of civilians and said captured pilots should be treated as war criminals rather than prisoners of war. Monitored in Cyprus, the broadcast gave no specifics but claimed that "a very large number of civilians have been killed" by pilots who "deliberately bombarded purely residential districts and civilian installations."

A Pentagon official last night said the Tomahawks fired from U.S. warships at Baghdad were directed at airfields. After firing roughly 200 Tomahawks during the first 48 hours of the war, the U.S. Navy had dramatically curbed the cruise missile firings until yesterday, when 19 of them were unleashed.

U.S. officials declined to say more about the volley of missiles fired at Baghdad yesterday, including why the missiles were unleashed during daylight hours, when Iraqi air defense gunners have a better chance of shooting down the low-flying drones. "We have been doing everything we can to avoid collateral damage," Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Washington yesterday. "I think if you've been watching television reports coming from Baghdad, you see a lot of neighborhoods, certainly, that were not struck."

In an apparent tribute to the air supremacy now enjoyed by the allies, not a single Iraqi aircraft took to the skies yesterday -- down from just eight on Thursday -- and all Iraqi airfields remained quiet, according to Kelly. Pilots flying F-4G Wild Weasels, an attack plane used to detect and destroy enemy radars, reported that "enemy radar activity was at the lowest level since the start of Desert Storm," with nearly 80 percent of the Wild Weasels sensing "absolutely no radar emissions whatsoever," Brig. Gen. Pat Stevens IV said in Riyadh.

British officials also confirmed that allied fighters have extended their combat air patrols along the Iraq-Iran border, a development which evidently has helped prevent any other Iraqi aircraft from fleeing to Iranian sanctuaries in the past 48 hours.

Six hundred of 2,500 allied air sorties flown yesterday were directed against Republican Guard units in southern Iraq and northern Kuwait, including five waves of B-52 strikes, U.S. officials said. Some of the B-52s, which had been dropping close to 500 tons of munitions a day on the Guard earlier this week, were diverted to missions against front-line Iraqi units, but others had difficulty hitting the elite units because of poor weather.

"The cloud cover was very bad" Friday, a senior official said. "The ceiling was something like 3,000 feet. Unless you can see your target, you just can drop ordnance, but that may be a waste."

France yesterday granted the United States permission to fly over its territory during B-52 strikes launched from British bases. The French had refused a similar request in 1986 when British-based U.S. bombers struck Libya, a denial which forced pilots to fly a circuitous route. Neutral Switzerland also said it will let U.S. ambulance planes cross its airspace for one week starting today "for humanitarian purposes."

U.S. officials also confirmed that an Air Force AC-130 gunship had been lost over Kuwait during a combat mission on Thursday. The crew of 14, from Hurlburt Field in Mary Esther, Fla., is listed as missing, bringing to 23 the number of U.S. missing and to 13 the number of U.S. planes lost in the war.

Some of the most vivid and detailed accounting of the war action yesterday came from the British. Irving, the Royal Air Force group captain, said Tornado bombers struck a large fuel dump, triggering "a spectacular blaze that . . . could be seen 80 miles away."

Sir Patrick Hine, commander in chief of the British air force, said Thursday that allied attacks have destroyed "80 percent or higher" of the Iraqi petroleum refinery capacity. Hine noted that Britain has moved more ammunition into the gulf region -- 17,000 tons -- than "we did in 1944 when the British forces went into Normandy."

British warplanes also destroyed a Scud launcher and a number of missiles at a storage site, and "at least one of the Scuds leapt about 100 feet into the air with flames blazing out of either end of it," Irving said. Iraqi surface-to-air (SAM) missiles now "are few and far between," with only two ineffectual missiles "that actually got airborne" against the British raiders Thursday night, the group captain added.

Western journalists recently readmitted to Baghdad began filing reports that portray a capital city turned into "a living hell" by allied air raids, as Reuter correspondent Bernd Debusmann put it. Iraqi authorities this week introduced a system that allows the two halves of the capital, bisected by the Tigris River, to take turns drawing three-day supplies of water, Debusmann reported.

Except for generator power, the city is without electricity. Gasoline sales, resumed this week after a nationwide moratorium, are so tightly controlled that as many as 400 cars are lined up at the pumps when stations open in the morning.

"Bush said he had no dispute with the Iraqi people," one unidentified resident told the Reuter correspondent. "It certainly looks different from Baghdad."

Refugees fleeing to Jordan yesterday said that Iraqi claims of a battlefield victory had boosted morale, but that the returning bodies of fallen soldiers had become a common sight.

"The aerial attack on Baghdad had affected the morale of the people, but Khafji has changed everything," A.M. Abhyankar, manager of an Indian construction company, told the Associated Press. But another Indian refugee, who refused to give his name, said that he had counted at least 40 flag-draped coffins of Iraqi soldiers being carried on the roof racks of cars on their way to the Shiite Moslim holy city of Karbala for burial.

The refugee flow was cut to a trickle yesterday because allied air raids have heavily damaged the highway from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan. Refugees also complained the Iraqi exit restrictions have delayed many trying to flee west. As many as 1,000 people, mostly Egyptians, are stranded at the Iraqi border post of Treibeel, according to one account.

Egyptian teacher Mohammad Bedoui, 40, told Reuter that before finally making their way to safety in Jordan, he and his wife and three children had returned to Baghdad twice for exit visas. They spent 10 days at Treibeel, wrapped in blankets without shelter from freezing rain and snow.

The State Department yesterday accused Jordan of importing oil from Iraq in violation of the United Nations sanctions. Spokesman Margaret Tutwiler said Jordan had been "heavily dependent" on Iraqi oil before the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, but noted that the United Nations "has never approved an exception for Jordan" from the economic sanctions imposed on Baghdad.

Her comments followed Jordanian claims that it had approval to import Iraqi oil. Jordan also accused allied forces this week of bombing tanker trucks carrying crude oil along the Baghdad-Amman highway. Tutwiler said she did not know if the attack was an attempt to halt the oil shipments.

Bush's brief swing through the South included stops at Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station, N.C., Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., and Fort Stewart, Ga., where he spoke to audiences composed largely of women and children. Many clutched photographs of relatives or loved ones in the gulf region. Bush shook hands, signed autographs and embraced military family members with tears streaming down their cheeks.

Urging the children to "be proud and stay strong," the president thanked the families for the sacrifices they and their loved ones were making. He recounted the emotion of last Tuesday night as he stood in the House of Representatives chamber during his State of the Union address, feeling "the thunder of the applause" for those serving in the gulf. "I hope that Saddam Hussein in his bunker somewhere in Baghdad saw every single minute of it, and if he did, maybe he now understands that we are a nation united in support of our troops," Bush said.

The president added that Operation Desert Storm is "right on course. . . . America and allied forces are systematically destroying Iraq's capacity to wage war."

In the Persian Gulf, southerly winds pushed the giant oil slick away from threatened Saudi desalting and power plants yesterday, providing anti-pollution teams with at least a temporary respite in their efforts to protect the threatened coastline. The 100-mile-long slick, containing an estimated 7 to 11 million barrels of crude, is five to 10 miles off the coast, compared to three miles earlier in the week, according to Saudi oil expert Abdallah Dabbagh. U.S. officials say the slick was caused by Iraqi sabotage of Kuwait's Sea Island Terminal.

"This does not remove the problem but it gives us more breathing space and more time to set up protective equipment around threatened areas," Dabbagh said.

Saudi authorities are deploying double rows of booms and skimmers at the nearby port of Jubail, where two large desalting plants, a 250,000-barrel-per-day refinery and a major petrochemical plant are located. U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Commander Paul Milligan, who is assisting the Saudi effort, yesterday said that earlier wire reports quoting him as suggesting some Saudi desalting plants may be left unprotected were incorrect.

In Tehran yesterday, Iranian officials meeting French diplomats repeated earlier vows to impound scores of Iraqi warplanes until the end of the war. But Deputy Foreign Minister Mahmoud Vaezi also told a French foreign ministry official that "we consider the spillover of the war as dangerous and condemn the {Western} bombing of residential areas in Iraq and destruction of its economic installations," according to the official Iranian news agency.

Diplomats from Iraq, Yemen, France and Algeria met with Iranian foreign ministry officials in an effort, as Tehran Radio put it, "to put out the fires of war."

Staff writers Dan Balz, Barton Gellman, David Hoffman, George Lardner Jr., R. Jeffrey Smith, Edward Cody in Saudi Arabia and staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.