Afraid that the United States is about to begin costly ground combat in the Persian Gulf, a group of at least 21 House members has signed a statement urging President Bush not to escalate the war with Iraq.

"We should not significantly increase the level of combat operations at this time," said Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.), who is circulating the statement among his colleagues.

Several of the signers of the statement being circulated by Dellums also joined the California Democrat in a series of speeches on the House floor Wednesday night warning of the consequences of a wider war in the gulf.

"If we are winning, and winning in such an overwhelming fashion, then why go to another level, which will risk many more thousands of lives?" asked Rep. Major R. Owens (D-N.Y.), as he opened the three-hour discussion.

That debate and the Dellums letter represent the first organized attempt in Congress to question the war with Iraq since Congress last month voted to authorize Bush to use force to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Though that January debate showed a significant minority in both the House and Senate opposing use of force, there has been little vocal dissent since Bush committed U.S. troops to combat Jan. 16.

Dellums said members felt compelled to speak out because of fears the war would be escalated during the congressional recess that began yesterday and continues to Feb. 19.

Nonetheless, with more than a half million U.S. military personnel in the gulf, criticism of the war with Iraq has been exceptionally muted.

Many of those who spoke against a ground war on Wednesday prefaced their remarks by expressing their support for U.S. troops in the field.

"It is time for this House and this country to stand united behind our troops," said Rep. Jolene Unsoeld (D-Wash.), adding that support for the troops also meant doing "everything in our power to minimize the casualties in this tragic war."

Joining Dellums in signing the statement urging Bush not to widen the war were Democratic Reps. Thomas M. Foglietta (Pa.), Fortney H. "Pete" Stark (Calif.), Jim McDermott (Wash.), Donald M. Payne (N.J.), Jose E. Serrano (N.Y.), Cardiss Collins (Ill.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Anthony C. Beilenson (Calif.), Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Solomon P. Ortiz (Tex.), David E. Bonior (Mich.), Jerry F. Costello (Ill.), Gus Savage (Ill.), Owens, Alan Wheat (Mo.), Les AuCoin (Ore.), Gerry Studds (Mass.), John Lewis (Ga.) and James H. Scheuer (N.Y.).

Also signing were independent Rep. Bernard M. Sanders (Vt.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).