President Bush yesterday said he has no immediate plans to authorize a ground offensive in the Persian Gulf War and will rely "for a while" on an allied air campaign that he described as "very, very effective."

After an hour-long meeting with his two top military advisers and other officials in the White House living quarters, the president told reporters, "We are going to take whatever time is necessary to sort out when a next stage might begin."

The president offered no details of the war report provided by Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who returned from the Persian Gulf Sunday night. But he pronounced himself "very satisfied . . . with the progress in the war," while declaring that "we're not talking about dates for further adding to the air campaign."

Bush's comments came after a week of intense speculation about whether -- or when -- ground action would be needed to root Iraqi forces out of their fortifications in Kuwait. Although some U.S. officials have suggested that limited ground incursions might be launched soon in an effort to lure the Iraqis into the open, the president's statement appeared to endorse widespread military sentiment for additional bombing before a ground war is initiated.

"We have not passed, I think, what's been referred to as a point of diminishing returns in the air campaign," Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, senior operations officer for the Joint Chiefs, said yesterday. "The more that {Iraqi forces} can be attrited by air before we send in foot soldiers and tankers and artillerymen, the fewer casualties we are going to take."

As Bush again insisted that "we are not going to suit somebody else's timetable" in prosecuting the war, Soviet envoy Yevgeny Primakov arrived in Baghdad to discuss a possible cease-fire with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Primakov's mission comes after sharp complaints from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that the massive allied bombardment of Iraq threatens to exceed the United Nations mandate to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

Gorbachev's concerns notwithstanding, allied bombers took advantage of continuing fair weather over Iraq and Kuwait to fly 2,900 sorties yesterday. But U.S. officials in Washington and Saudi Arabia took pains to stress coalition efforts to avoid hitting non-military targets. Bush declared that "there is no targeting of civilians," while a testy Marlin Fitzwater, the White House spokesman, complained that it is in "the propaganda and p.r. battle where {Saddam} is scoring his points" by focusing international attention on civilian casualties.

In Riyadh, Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal gave a detailed explanation of why repeated allied pounding of the southern Iraqi city of Basra is causing "collateral damage." Basra, Neal said, "is a military town in the true sense. It is astride a major naval base and port facility. The infrastructure, military infrastructure, is closely interwoven within the city of Basra itself."

The destruction of targets in and around Basra is part of what Neal described as an "intensifying" air campaign against all "echelons of forces, from the front lines and all the way back."

"There is no rest for the weary for any of them," Neal added. "There is no division, there is no brigade, there is no battalion that really is spared the attacks from our pilots."

Primakov's diplomatic efforts came amid other attempts to find a solution to end the war. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Yang Fuchang set off on a tour of Syria, Turkey, Yugoslavia and Iran. In the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade, representatives from 15 of 102 countries in the non-aligned movement discussed possible peace formulas before their foreign ministers arrive today for wider talks.

The U.N. Security Council, which last November authorized the use of force to drive Iraq from Kuwait, is scheduled to meet this week to discuss the war for the first time since the conflict began nearly four weeks ago.Both Sides' Positions Rigid

But each mediation effort faces the apparent obstacle of Iraqi intransigence and the U.S. refusal to accept anything less than a prompt and total Iraqi withdrawal. Although Iraqi deputy prime minister Saadoun Hammadi yesterday said his country is willing to "study" any proposal for an unconditional ceasefire, Baghdad Radio proclaimed again yesterday that Iraq "will never accept a cease-fire except after achieving total victory."

Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose recent attempts at diplomacy received a cool reception in Baghdad, yesterday denounced the Iraqi government as despotic and the U.S. government as an "aggressor." In a speech in Tehran before half a million people celebrating the 12th anniversary of that country's Islamic revolution, Rafsanjani reaffirmed Iranian neutrality and declared that both antagonists in the war are fighting for an unjust cause, according to the Reuter news service.

The diplomatic maneuvering yesterday also included a meeting between Bush and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens, who reportedly reminded the president and U.S. officials of his country's forbearance in the face of more than two dozen Iraqi Scud missile attacks. Arens also briefed Cheney and Powell on Israeli intelligence estimates of the damage allied bombing has inflicted, U.S. and diplomatic sources said.

Iraq launched more Scud missiles at Israel and Saudi Arabia, even as U.S. officials said that U.S. F-15 pilots had reported the destruction of four or five mobile Iraqi missile launchers.

Two Scuds were fired at Israel last night and early today, with the second missile injuring six people and damaging a residential neighborhood of Tel Aviv, Israeli army officials said. The earlier Scud landed in an uninhabited area without causing injuries or damage. Witnesses said Patriot air defense missiles were fired at the Scuds but the Israeli army did not report the results.

Two Patriots destroyed the single Scud aimed at Riyadh, scattering debris that reportedly injured two people on the ground. Since the war began, Iraq has fired more than 60 Scuds, almost evenly divided between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

In his brief afternoon statement to a press corps assembled in the chilly White House Rose Garden, Bush expressed "total confidence" in the coalition's current course of action and vowed to "rely heavily" on the military advice Cheney and Powell provided him. The two top military advisers reportedly left nine hours of meetings with Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and others in Saudi Arabia without fixing a date for the start of a ground offensive that is expected to supplement the air phase of the war.

In the future, Bush said, if Cheney and his generals "come to me and say there needs to be another phase, then I will make that decision because that is a decision for the president of the United States." Anxiety Over Civilian Deaths

U.S. comments about harm to Iraqi civilians were expressed in terms that were alternately testy, defensive and concerned.

Fitzwater, asked about Gorbachev's criticisms, said, "It does strike me that one of the unfortunate sides of the Soviet president's comments are that Saddam Hussein must be having some impact in terms of trying to convince the world" that the allies are causing excessive damage to non-military targets.

A senior administration official later said the U.S. anxiety is related to the belief that the international coalition -- particularly Arab participation -- is held together by the "unstated, unwritten understanding that the U.S. will not target Arab civilians and Moslem holy places."

If the perception takes hold that bombing is indiscriminate, "we could have real coalition problems" that potentially permit Saddam to strip away some of the non-Western partners in the alliance, the official said. Gorbachev's comments, he added, "lend credence" to Saddam's efforts to portray disproportionate civilian and collateral harm and thus "we felt we had to start setting the record straight."

As Iraqi officials announced yesterday the abolition of military deferments for 17-year-old male students, the country's religious affairs minister, Abdullah Fadel, said that thousands of civilians have been killed or wounded in the allied raids. Fadel said he could not give precise figures, but his estimate was far higher than previous government reports, which put civilian casualties at about 650 dead and 750 wounded.

In other combat action yesterday, British pilots reported large numbers of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and unusually heavy anti-aircraft artillery fire near some Iraqi targets. Tornado fighter bombers continued attacking bridges, including a pontoon over the Euphrates River in southeast Iraq that "broke up into pieces and floated downstream" after being hit with 12 bombs, Irving said.

A British Lynx helicopter flying from HMS Cardiff fired two missiles at a 75-foot Iraqi patrol boat, which was "last seen on fire and sinking," Irving added. Saudi pilots also attacked Iraqi tanks in southern Iraq, destroying seven, according to Col. Ahmed Robayan, the Saudi Arabian military spokesman.

A senior U.S. military official in Saudi Arabia said yesterday that despite the exodus of more than 140 Iraqi aircraft to Iran, many of the country's best pilots apparently remain in Iraq. This conclusion, he said, is based primarily on evidence that those piloting the fleeing planes during the low-altitude nighttime dashes to Iran have inferior flying skills. Many Jets Still in Iraq

Although many of Iraq's best aircraft have either been destroyed or sent to Iranian sanctuary, several hundred others remain in the war zone. In addition to hiding the planes in residential neighborhoods and on remote roadways, the Iraqis also have put some inside the remnants of hardened shelters already struck with 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs, sources in Saudi Arabia said.

Kelly of the Joint Staff told Pentagon reporters yesterday that 200 shelters -- about one-third of the Iraqi total -- have been demolished. But some shelters confirmed destroyed by U.S. aircraft have turned out to be decoys, officials in Riyadh said.

Earlier speculation that Iraqi pilots fleeing to Iran might be defecting or taking orders from dissident officers is now discounted in part because the Iraqi air force has retained the same commander since the exodus began several weeks ago, a U.S. military source in Riyadh said. Intelligence analysts believe Saddam ordered the planes out of the country "to preserve his fleet for whatever regime survives the war," he added.

U.S. officials also discounted the likelihood of the Iraqis massing for a sudden kamikaze raid, partly because the planes are widely dispersed in Iran without logistical, munitions or communications support. Moreover, "they just haven't shown that kind of gumption so far," a U.S. officer said.

Kelly said that allied bombers had run 750 attack sorties against targets in Kuwait yesterday. The operations chief said he believes "a lot more than" the 750 Iraqi tanks claimed by Central Commmand in Riyadh have been destroyed. The Iraqi armor forces also may be suffering from a lack of ammunition, fuel, maintenance and the ability to exercise, Kelly said, adding, "A tank, in my experience, will deteriorate a lot quicker sitting still than it will being operated."

Kelly said he could not confirm a report that Iraq apparently has moved two captured U.S. soldiers, including the only female American POW, to Basra. An Iraqi prisoner of war reportedly described taking the prisoners to the southern port city.

Staff writers Helen Dewar and R. Jeffrey Smith in Washington, Edward Cody in Saudi Arabia, Jackson Diehl in Israel and staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.