Iraqi aircraft slipped past allied radar, crossed the border and landed in neighboring Iran on Saturday, and the United States said Tehran promised to keep them--at least until the Gulf War ends.
The fugitive planes were combat aircraft, Tehran Radio reported, and the Iranians counted seven of them. But at the Pentagon, U.S. officers said the seven had joined at least 17 additional Iraqi aircraft--both civilian and military--already in Iran. These other planes, an American officer said, had left Iraq during the past several days.
Senior American intelligence officials professed to be mystified about why the Iraqis had gone to Iran.
“It’s unclear whether they are husbanding their resources” by flying to a haven in an officially neutral country--or defecting, said Rear Adm. John (Mike) McConnell, director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said American estimates of the number of Iraqi aircraft flown to Iran are expected to climb.
In the 10th day of the Persian Gulf War, there were these other developments:
* Iraq fired four Scud missiles at Israel and one at Saudi Arabia. All were intercepted by Patriot missiles. None carried poison gas. There were no immediate reports of any injuries or serious damage from falling debris. The missiles were aimed at Tel Aviv and Haifa in Israel and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.
* In what pilots call a “fur ball"--a hectic tangle of aerial dogfights--U.S. Air Force F-15s shot down three Iraqi MIG-23s. No allied planes were lost. Pilots returning from furious bombardment of Iraqi positions in Kuwait said the landscape below was ablaze with countless fires.
* On the ground, elements of the 1st Marine Division staged the largest artillery attack of the war. They hit Iraqi targets 27 miles southwest of Kuwait city. But it appeared that a full-scale ground war was not yet imminent because U.S. forces at the Saudi border were still not at their full strength.
It was not immediately clear whether Iran is actively cooperating with Iraq by sheltering valuable aircraft or is simply offering a neutral haven to pilots wishing to defect. It is considered unlikely that there is strategic cooperation because of traditional hostility between Iraq and Iran and bitterness in the wake of their 1980-88 war.
There is a possibility, however, that Baghdad has promised Tehran a rich reward--political or financial--to protect some Iraqi warplanes.
The possibility of mass defections to Iran by Iraqi pilots also was considered remote. Other countries, notably Jordan, would probably be safer refuge. And any defectors would fear retaliation against members of their family back in Iraq.
It was possible, nonetheless, that widely circulated reports that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had executed some of his top generals in recent days might have so unnerved the pilots that they gambled that they would be safer anywhere but in Iraq.
As the latest seven Iraqi aircraft slipped into Iran, jets from the Iranian air force scrambled, Tehran Radio reported. The Iraqi planes flew in three groups, the Tehran broadcast said, and they asked to land.
“They announced emergency conditions,” Tehran Radio said, “and asked for permission to make emergency landings.”
One of the planes crashed and burned, and two others were damaged when they touched down, the Tehran report said. It said nothing about casualties.
The Iraqi pilots were being questioned, Tehran Radio said.
A short while later, Baghdad Radio said: “A number of our planes were obliged . . . to land in Iran, and contacts are under way regarding the return of the aircraft and the pilots to their homeland.”
There was no indication what Baghdad meant by obliged.
After the aircraft landed, the Iranian National Security Council in Tehran announced that planes from either side in the war forced to land at Iranian bases will be impounded until the end of the conflict.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran will strongly prevent any action which breaches its neutrality,” the security council said, underlining the determination of President Hashemi Rafsanjani to stay out of the war.
In Washington, Secretary of State James A. Baker III said Iran assured the United States this meant that the Iraqi planes will be grounded until the war is over.
“We have been assured that Iran intends to remain totally neutral in the conflict,” Baker told reporters, “and that aircraft from either side of this conflict will remain there for the duration of the conflict.”
Although Baker reported that the United States had been in touch with Tehran, he said he did not know why the Iraqi pilots had landed in Iran. He refused to speculate on whether the pilots might be defecting.
At the Pentagon, Rear Adm. McConnell, the intelligence director for the Joint Chiefs, said closer study of Iranian airfields is likely to cause U.S. estimates of the total number of fugitive Iraqi aircraft to climb.
In contradiction to the Tehran Radio report, he said the latest Iraqi planes to enter Iranian airspace were not challenged by the Iranians and that all appeared to be undamaged when they landed.
Included were a dozen top-line Iraqi fighters, U.S. military officials said, and another dozen or so transports and civilian airliners.
U.S. fighters are under orders to intercept any Iraqi planes they see, officials said, and there was no explanation of how two dozen enemy aircraft could have eluded the huge allied air force.
The United States and Saudi Arabia have AWACS early-warning aircraft aloft 24 hours a day, and it remained a mystery how their radar could have missed all the Iraqi planes--particularly slow-flying transports and airliners.
The Air War
At allied headquarters in Saudi Arabia, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Scott declared the air war over Iraq a success against several ground targets.
Iraq’s ability to produce nuclear weapons has now been “100% destroyed,” Scott reported, as was “a significant amount of Iraqi capability to produce both biological and chemical weapons.”
But he warned that Iraq’s capability to store both chemical and biological weapons remains “very large.”
Pilots returning from attacking Iraqi positions in Kuwait said the landscape below was devastated. They lost count of shattered bridges and fires.
For the first time in the war, the French used Mirage F-1 fighters to attack Republican Guard positions in Iraq near the Kuwaiti border. They returned safely. The French did not use the Mirage F-1s early in the war for fear they would be mistaken for Iraqi Mirages and shot down by allied fighters.
The French sold Mirages to the Iraqis before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
For its part, Iraq said it had shot down five “air targets” during 113 allied raids. The targets, Baghdad Radio said, included aircraft and missiles.
Because of these defeats, said the Iraqi broadcast, monitored in Cyprus, “the enemy air force . . . found nothing to compensate for their failure . . . other than carrying on with the raids against civilians.”
In Iraq, Peter Arnett, correspondent for the Cable News Network and the only Western reporter allowed to remain in Baghdad, was taken on a tour of the Muslim holy city of Najaf, where he said he saw bomb craters and more than a dozen flattened homes.
He said Iraqi authorities blamed allied air raids. The authorities told him that at least 20 people had been killed.
At the Pentagon, officers said the allies had suffered no aircraft losses in the past 24 hours.
They denied hitting any religious sites and said no civilian areas had been targeted. But they acknowledged that civilians might be unintended victims.
The allies offered this tally:
* 23 allied planes lost; 17 in combat, including 10 American, 5 British, 1 Kuwaiti, 1 Italian.
* 45 Iraqi planes destroyed.
* 27 allied personnel missing in action, including 14 Americans, 10 Britons, two Italians and one Kuwaiti.
* 110 Iraqis taken prisoner.
The Ground War
On the ground, the Marine artillery attack into occupied Kuwait employed a battalion-sized task force of 155-millimeter howitzers. The Iraqis replied with short-range missiles that fell harmlessly in the desert, allied officers said.
Three Marines were killed and two were injured in a related vehicle accident.
The allies reported destroying one Iraqi vehicle. Otherwise, they offered no battle damage assessment.
They refused to say exactly what their target was.
In another incident, 10 Iraqi soldiers and two officers surrendered to Saudi forces, the officers said.
Twice before, Marine gunners have fired off rounds across the Saudi border and then pulled back. Despite these attacks and the latest artillery barrage, it looked as though a full-scale ground war is still a while off.
American armored forces were reported to be at least two weeks from attaining full strength.
That was partly because the allies were said to have decided in recent days to cut back on daytime convoys to the front. Military officials apparently are concerned that such convoys might present an inviting target for hundreds of Iraqi warplanes that are still feared to be battle-ready.
“I feel no pressure to do it tomorrow,” said Col. Bill Nash, commander of the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Armored Division.
Other soldiers agreed that a full-scale attack should wait until troops are ready.
“The last thing you want to do,” said Kevin Burke, 22, an infantryman, “is move in with a new bunch of guys when a ground war is about to start.”
The War Chest
To pay for the fighting, Saudi Arabia promised an additional $13.5 billion to the allied war chest. Secretary of State Baker announced the contribution in Washington.
It brought total allied support for the first three months of 1991 to $36 billion. Baker refused to say what the ultimate cost of the war might be.
But at an estimated $500 million a day, the war is expected to cost the allies just under $45 billion by the end of March.
As the war raged on, there seemed to be little hope for a cease-fire.
In Nicosia, Saudi Arabia and its partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council rejected any end to hostilities until Iraq leaves Kuwait.
Several Arab and nonaligned countries floated the idea of a “pause for peace” last week at the United Nations. In reply, the Saudis and their partners in the council issued this statement after a meeting in Nicosia, Cyprus:
“Any effort (to end fighting in the gulf) . . . should be dedicated to persuading the Iraqi regime to withdraw its troops from the state of Kuwait. Any idea or step should focus on this issue before discussions on means for a cease-fire.”
In addition to Saudi Arabia, members of the council are the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the exiled government of Kuwait.
Meanwhile, in eastern Saudi Arabia, CBS News officials said the next thing they expect to hear about correspondent Bob Simon and his crew will come from Iraq.
The veteran correspondent, his producer, cameraman and soundman have been missing since Monday at the border area where Saudi Arabia meets Iraq and Kuwait.
Tracks leading from their car indicated the four had crossed the border into Kuwait.
In the car, Saudi sources said, the trackers found a passport, television equipment, a wristwatch with Saddam Hussein’s image on the face, Iraqi money and $6,000 in U.S. currency.
“We can hope,” said a network official at the CBS headquarters office in Dhahran.
Simon and his crew are the only media personnel reported lost so far in the war. They apparently were trying to break free of the Pentagon’s rule that reporters can travel only with military escorts.
Williams reported from Amman and Broder from Washington. Times staff writers Robert C. Toth and Robin Wright, in Washington, and J. Michael Kennedy in Riyadh and John Balzar in Dhahran contributed to this story.