DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA, FEB. 3 -- The possibility that large numbers of Iraqi soldiers may succumb to allied air power and surrender remains a hope for the commanders of Operation Desert Storm. But spirited skirmishing by Iraqi ground troops thus far provides little evidence that an early capitulation is in the works.

Evidence of Iraqi morale -- high or low -- is sparse and contradictory. The Iraqi air force has abandoned the war without a fight, and many of its aircraft have simply decamped to Iran. The navy appears to have collapsed in despair, its vessels sunk or damaged, its captured sailors relating tales of desperate attempts to escape both allied air strikes and the wrath of President Saddam Hussein and his government.

By contrast, however, Iraqi armored troops fought tenaciously in a doomed raid on the Saudi border town of Khafji this week, while other Iraqi ground units mounted sophisticated probing attacks against allied ground forces all along the Kuwaiti border. Despite serious losses, the Iraqis behaved like an army spoiling for a fight -- not running from one.

The inability to go forward or back may be the dilemma facing those Iraqis who have had enough of the allied onslaught called Operation Desert Storm.

Royal Air Force Group Capt. Niall Irving, a briefing officer for British forces, told reporters today that fewer than 50 soldiers from the trenches of occupied Kuwait have defected since the beginning Jan. 17 of Desert Storm, and "in the last few days, I haven't heard of any at all."

But, Irving noted, "I think this has got to be set against the backdrop of what they're up against. It's not just that there is this major barrier in front of them -- deep ditches, oil-filled caverns, minefields and the risk that they'll be shot in the back if they move across it. There's also the impact on anybody who flees their country -- the family impact."

Mixed signals within the Iraqi military have led U.S. military leaders to hedge their bets. The Marines' commander, Lt. Gen. Walter Boomer, told combat pool reporters Thursday that "my sense is that they {the Iraqis} are a little discouraged, and I don't think morale is very good." Prisoners of war "all tell us that morale is next to nothing." On the other hand, he acknowledged that "getting into Khafji and hanging on" -- the Iraqis held the town for some 24 hours -- was "quite a bold thing to do."

Overall, he said, results are inconclusive. "I'll tell you this: All of my plans assume that every Iraqi up there is going to fight like hell. That's the way we plan," he said. "If that turns out not to be true, then great. It's nice to hear about this guy and that guy, or this unit or that unit is going to surrender, but we don't believe in it until we see it."

Indeed, it took more than two weeks for the allies to believe that Iraq's 800-plane air force was not going to contest dominance of the skies. At first the allied pilots thought the Iraqis -- who risked combat only rarely and often turned and headed away from the action -- was husbanding resources to fight another day.

But as time passed, the conviction grew that the pilots were simply abandoning the war. This seems a virtual certainty now with the departure of at least 89 aircraft in the past week or so to Iran, which has impounded them.

The Iraqi navy presented a more obvious mismatch. With a hodgepodge of destroyers and patrol boats serving as missile-firing platforms, the Iraqis were competing against a massive and modern allied fleet. By the beginning of February, U.S. Navy and other allied ships and warplanes had destroyed, damaged or sunk virtually all of Iraq's 43 ships and coastal craft, and the "contest" for sea power was over.

Aboard the frigate USS Curts, Kuwaiti interrogators questioned 35 captured sailors who reportedly told about how they had been ordered to cross the Persian Gulf to Iran. "They know they cannot fight, and they don't have the ability to defend themselves against the aircraft," said a Kuwaiti who called himself Maj. Ibrahim but refused to give his full name to pool reporters. "They want to keep their ships in Iran until the war is over."

Ibrahim also said some sailors told him that Saddam's Baath Party had placed armed guards at naval bases to prevent sailors from deserting. The sailors appeared terrified of Saddam's vengeance, he said, and have asked: " 'Please don't write down my name. If you tell someone, they will kill my family.' "

Perhaps defection, as the Royal Air Force's Irving suggested, is largely a physical problem -- how to do it without getting yourself or your family killed. Marine Maj. Gen. Robert B. Johnston, the allied forces command briefer, said today that "we don't have a plan to make nice little lanes" for defectors to cross the minefields.

But it is not clear that a mass defection is contemplated. Signs have emerged that some Iraqis disdain surrender and instead are using the suggested tools of defection as a military ruse.

Experienced U.S. combat officers expressed grudging admiration for some of the Iraqi invaders of Khafji, whose tanks approached the town last week with their turrets reversed, a signal of surrender promulgated in allied psychological warfare leaflets dropped on the Kuwaiti trenches during air raids. After threading their way inside the Saudi defenses, however, the guns swung around and the battle began.

"It was a gutsy move," Army Maj. Roy Adams told pool reporters assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division.

Once in the field, however, opinions differed about Iraqi performance. Lt. Col. John Vines, a battalion commander with the 82nd Airborne Division, characterized one probe by Iraqi soldiers as "an act of desperation, because I think he {Saddam} is trying to get a cheap victory and inflict some casualties on us."

But Marine Cobra helicopter gunship pilots attacking the Khafji invaders praised Iraqi tenacity. "The Iraqis fight hard," said Marine Capt. Mike Rocco, of New York City. "The Iraqis aren't as organized as I expected, but I wouldn't say this war will be quick."

The Cobras attacked a column of six Iraqi troop carriers about a mile north of the center of Khafji. Three of the carriers fled. But the other three, though hopelessly outgunned, stood their ground and started shooting.

"The return fire we got was sporadic, and it was not well aimed," said Marine Maj. Michael Steele, 36, of Aurora, Colo., "but there was return fire."

Steele predicted that "this war will not be a cakewalk" despite U.S. air power. "Obviously, being bombed demoralized them, but I don't know whether it's demoralized them enough to give up," he said.

Allied commanders are not impatient, and have virtually guaranteed that air strikes by everything from strategic B-52 bombers to A-10 attack fighters will continue for some time in an effort to destroy both the Iraqis' fortifications and their will to resist.

A few weeks of bombing, allied commanders hope, will make the Iraqis think seriously of surrender. If it doesn't work, said Rocco, "a lot of people will die."