The top Marine commander in the region predicted today that war was "just a few days away" and suggested that it would begin with a three- or four-day bombing campaign intended to wipe out half the Iraqi defenders at the border before U.S. and British land forces are sent in.

Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, who commands more than 85,000 Marines and British troops poised to attack, said his force would target Iraq's 51st Mechanized Division with 130 fighter jets and about 75 attack helicopters, then rush in on the ground to seize southern Iraq.

His eve-of-war sendoff speech to thousands of Marines gathered here at their main desert headquarters offered fresh details about the projected opening phase of the war, estimating that bombing would go on at least 72 hours before a full-fledged invasion.

The "road-to-war brief," as it was called, complete with flyovers by fighter jets and attack helicopters, reinforced for troops in the field that war appeared imminent. Some units have packed up and moved out of their camps, received ammunition and sent off what they thought could be their final letters home before hostilities.

Conway told the Marines that he did not know exactly when war would start. "But I'll tell you this," he said. "I believe in my heart it's just a few days away."

The start of war this week would leave U.S. military commanders with just a single major land front, as Turkey continues to balk at allowing its bases to be used to attack Iraq from the north. Hedging against the prospect that they will be barred from using Turkish airspace as well, U.S. commanders have started to move ships from the eastern Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea so they can fire cruise missiles over Saudi territory at Iraq.

Unlike the 1991 war, when U.S. warplanes bombed Iraq for 38 days before ground troops went in, the Pentagon this time plans a shorter aerial attack. Some officials have hinted that the air and ground wars could even start almost simultaneously.

But some ground commanders have pushed for as much time as possible for the air attack to weaken Iraqi defenses and demoralize their soldiers before U.S. troops go in. Conway said today: "We reach out 72 to 96 hours in advance of those ground troops and knock hell out of things with the 3rd Marine Air Wing, the biggest and most powerful in the world. We take those [Iraqi] formations down to about 50 percent and then turn them over to the attacking troops. It's not a fair fight. We didn't intend for it to be."

At his disposal for the air assault will be 70 AV-8B Harrier ground attack planes, 60 F/A-18 Hornet fighter-bombers, 58 AH-1W Cobra attack helicopters and 15 to 20 British helicopters. According to military planners, such an air armada could sustain about 420 sorties, or attack missions, per day and, for a short period, even surge to as many as 672 sorties per day.

In keeping with the spirit of a prewar pep talk, Conway talked tough for his young Marines, many of them teenagers facing combat for the first time. He noted that the Marines have "the reputation of being the baddest sons of bitches in the valley. I gotta tell you, when Abdul in the 51st Mechanized Division north of the border heard that he was taking on the 1st Marine Division followed by the 1st UK Division, he said something like, 'Ana felaka beluchi,' which is Arabic for, 'Ain't that a bitch!' "

Just a moment or two later, with split-second timing, two Harriers roared over the makeshift coliseum where Conway addressed the troops from the bed of a seven-ton truck, followed by four Cobras buzzing the cheering audience.

The troops took Conway's talk as a sign that they were about to go to war. "I don't take nothing as a game anymore," said Marine Cpl. Raymond Moore, 21, from Cleveland. "But for certain people, it's slapping them in the face." Trained to be stoic, few admitted much fear. "We worry, but we want it to start and get it finished so we can get the heck home," said Lance Cpl. Gary Huggins, 20, from New York.

Conway told his troops not to worry about peace protests at home, pointing to a poll showing that 71 percent of Americans want to get the Iraq situation resolved now. "When we invade Iraq," he added, "that'll go up to 91 percent. And you know how I feel about it? Piss on everybody else."

But the 55-year-old general, who took over the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in November, was careful to caution his young fighters that they would be fighting to remove the "megalomaniac" President Saddam Hussein, not "to lay waste to this place."

Many Iraqis will not even want to fight, he told the Marines. If they surrender, he ordered, "bring 'em in, give 'em a cup of coffee, give 'em a cigarette, all right? Pat 'em on their skinny ass and send them to the rear. But we gotta be able to make the distinction, okay? We want to tell these people we're not here to occupy their country. We're here to get rid of this guy and turn it back over to them as soon as we can."

Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, shown with U.S. and British forces earlier this month, told Marines yesterday that their mission was to remove Saddam Hussein.Conway, left, with British Brig. J.B. Dutton earlier this month, said U.S. and British aircraft would attack 72 to 96 hours before ground troops move in.