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Defense Chief Dampens Speculation on Assault : Military: More Iraqi planes fly into Iran. Whether it’s a Hussein scheme or a series of defections is unknown.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The United States and its allies will not launch a ground attack against Iraqi positions in Kuwait until “absolutely certain that we have gained everything we can from the air campaign,” Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said Sunday.

Although roughly half a million U.S. troops will be “combat ready” before the end of February, “there is no reason for us to rush into a ground conflict that would mean unnecessary American and allied casualties,” Cheney said.

The Pentagon chief’s remarks, made in a television interview, seemed to be aimed at dampening speculation by some U.S. government figures and Saudi Arabian officials that a potentially bloody ground assault is imminent.

Meanwhile, more Iraqi planes have flown into Iran, bringing the total to more than 40, U.S. officials said, adding that they still do not know whether the flights are the result of defections or a deliberate plan by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

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Cheney, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. commander in the gulf, and other U.S. officials, however, insisted that they have no reason to doubt Iranian assurances that the planes will be kept on the ground until the war is over.

In other developments:

* Bush Administration budget chief Richard G. Darman said the war is now costing roughly $500 million a day. But officials insist that pledges from other countries--$45 billion so far--will make the overall cost “manageable” and a war tax unnecessary. So far, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait each have pledged $13.5 billion and Japan has pledged $9 billion toward the war effort. U.S. allies pledged between $8 billion and $9 billion toward the cost of Operation Desert Shield before war began.

* Two U.S. fighter jets shot down four Iraqi MIG-23s near Baghdad, bringing to 26 the number of Iraqi planes claimed to have been shot down in air-to-air battles. No allied planes have been lost in the last 48 hours, Schwarzkopf said.

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* Iraq vowed to deliver a crushing blow against allied forces, saying once again that its full strength has yet to be unleashed in the war.

* British Defense Secretary Tom King declared that Saddam Hussein’s “obscene military machine” must be dismantled--even if Iraq were to pull out of Kuwait. King’s statement was one of several by allied officials that have implied a widening of the official war aims of the U.S.-led coalition.

The Ground Attack

U.S. officials, from President Bush on down, have said since war against Iraq was first discussed that an air assault alone might not be enough to force the Iraqis out of Kuwait and that a ground offensive might be required.

But the timing of such an assault has remained a major question. Over the past week, Saudi officials have suggested that a full-scale ground war could come in a matter of days, and members of Congress have voiced worries that Bush might move too quickly toward a ground campaign.

Some military experts have speculated that Iraq’s dumping of oil into the Persian Gulf might have been a ploy to goad American commanders into an early ground assault, but U.S. officials said it won’t work.

“The basic arrangement is that there would be a recommendation coming forward to Gen. (Colin L.) Powell and myself and Gen. Schwarzkopf in the field, and we take that to the President, and the President will make the decision,” Cheney said during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

But “we haven’t felt any deadline on us in this regard,” he added. “The air campaign is going very well, and we want to let it work just as long as possible.”

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At a briefing in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, Schwarzkopf similarly dismissed a newspaper story that quoted unnamed “intelligence officials” suggesting that a ground assault would be needed.

“Intelligence officials,” Schwarzkopf said, “are not the people that are going to make that decision.”

Speculation persisted, however, as the top military adviser to French President Francois Mitterrand said he expected allied forces to begin a ground offensive by mid-February. “I don’t know and would not tell the exact date, but I am talking about the first half of February,” said Adm. Jacques Lanxade.

The argument for a delay in ground action was boosted by the disclosure that a shipload of U.S. antitank helicopters had been delayed because of mechanical and crew problems. The helicopters were sidetracked to the Mediterranean island of Malta with no indication of when they would arrive in Saudi Arabia.

U.S. forces continue to enter Saudi Arabia, although the flow has begun to ease. Some 480,000 troops already are in place, toward a total that will peak at about 500,000, Cheney said.

Those troops will still require some time before they are fully “combat ready” and have all their equipment and ammunition. The full readiness point would be reached before the end of February, Cheney said.

Another concern to allied ground forces is that half a million land mines have been laid in Kuwait, and Iraq is turning the occupied desert kingdom into “one big minefield,” according to Marine Maj. George Cutchall.

The mines are part of a formidable array of defenses erected by Hussein’s occupation army. They include 12-foot-high parapets, oil-filled trenches and buried storage tanks filled with explosive butane.

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“He doesn’t plan on losing,” Cutchall, a mine expert, said in a speech to 100 Marines in the Saudi desert. He added that his figure of 500,000 mines is conservative and that most were strung in two belts just north of the Saudi-Kuwaiti border.

But he warned that virtually all of Kuwait is likely to be mined by the time a ground war starts. Iraq had up to 20 million mines, many of them provided by former allies such as the United States, France, the Soviet Union and even Kuwait.

The Planes in Iran

More than 40 Iraqi planes have been flown from air bases still operating in the north of Iraq to airfields spread out across the border in Iran, defense officials say, adding that more than half of them are Iraq’s best fighters.

The planes appear to have “hopscotched” to safety, flying from bases in southern Iraq and Kuwait to new locations in northern Iraq early in the conflict, then flying across the border to Iran over the last several days, officials said.

Allied forces were aware of these movements late last week, but they had no warplanes operating far enough north to reach the fleeing Iraqi jets before they crossed into Iran. Because Iran is a neutral nation, U.S. warplanes are not allowed to enter Iranian airspace.

The move to safety appears to be part of a longstanding Iraqi plan, a senior defense official said. But, he added, “we have no indication there was any deal cut here” between Iraq and Iran, either to allow the planes to fly to safety there or to permit them to fly in and out of sanctuaries in Iran.

Iran has assured Washington that it would impound Iraqi planes until the war ends, and “we have no reason to doubt that they will do that,” Cheney said. “There’s no love lost between the Iraqis and the Iranians.”

However, an Administration official said that there was “at least one unconfirmed report” of planes flying back and forth between Iran and Iraq and that there are some in the Pentagon who theorize that Iranian officials may turn their heads and not stop Iraqi planes from taking off.

Others disagree. In any case, U.S. officials are expressing confidence that most Iraqi planes are staying on the ground. “It’s not like they’re using Tehran as another air base,” an official said, referring to the Iranian capital.

Despite the Iranian assurances, the U.S. military plans to keep an eye on the planes and has “contingencies that will take care” of the Iraqi aircraft should they re-enter the conflict from Iranian bases, Schwarzkopf said.

Combat Report

Meanwhile, in the air war over Iraq, two U.S. F-15s took on four Iraqi MIG-23s just southeast of Baghdad, downing all four with no losses to U.S. planes, Schwarzkopf said, adding that coalition forces have not had any aircraft losses in the last 48 hours.

British fliers apparently knocked out a Silkworm missile site in Iraq that could have posed a threat to allied navy or merchant ships.

Schwarzkopf said allied planes have flown more than 22,000 sorties, chalking up 26 air-to-air kills. In addition, he said 18 Iraqi vessels have been sunk or badly damaged.

Iraqis have fired 51 Scud missiles to date, he said--26 at Saudi Arabia and 25 at Israel.

Refugees fleeing Iraq said allied forces on Sunday bombed the main road leading from Baghdad to the Jordanian border, injuring three civilians, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported.

Goals of the War

British Defense Secretary King’s declaration that Hussein’s “obscene military machine” must be dismantled, regardless of whether he pulls out of Kuwait, was the strongest statement yet that the allies must not allow the Iraqi military threat to remain intact after the Gulf War.

And it appeared to put Britain at odds with Arab members of the coalition who have said that they advocate only driving Hussein out of Kuwait.

But King insisted in a BBC radio interview that allowing Iraq to pull back with its military power still in force “would be manifestly betraying all those who have now prepared to fight, to risk their lives--some have already sadly lost their lives.”

King argued that U.N. Resolution 678, which authorized the use of force to free Kuwait, placed responsibility on the allied force to make sure that the Iraqi army could not strike again after a pullout from Kuwait.

He cited the last section of the resolution, which calls on U.N. forces to “restore peace and security in the region.”

“That means,” he said, “if Saddam Hussein and his forces merely withdraw to the border and we did see the liberation of Kuwait, but all the Iraqi guns and all the military machine was left on the other side of the border merely to repeat the exercise as soon as the allies went away, that would simply not see the achievement of that resolution.”

Other military officials, particularly those in Israel, have warned that Hussein might still plan to call for a cease-fire and promise to pull out, leaving his million-strong army relatively intact, along with his large air force.

Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, echoing the position of some Arab governments, said Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait is all that the United Nations is calling for.

“There is no decision at international level that will call for anything beyond that at this stage,” said Sirous Nisseri. “And there is a strong feeling that if there is any attempt to try to achieve anything more than what the U.N. has called for, that would bring a lot more disaster to this already very much troubled region.”

Baghdad Threat

Promising that its best punch is yet to come, Baghdad Radio reported that its country’s military has “not yet begun to launch its crushing strikes.”

Quoting a war communique reiterating earlier claims by Hussein, the broadcast added: “To those who thought that their aggression would be a picnic, they have come to realize that their claims are false, and they will learn our true power when God blesses the decision for us to unleash all our might against the enemy.”

The communique warned again of Iraq’s intention to use the most lethal weapons in its arsenal, among them chemical agents and so-called fuel-expansion bombs.

Times staff writers Mark Fineman in Amman, Jordan, William Tuohy in London and Melissa Healy in Washington contributed to this report.

THE SILKWORM MISSILE

British airmen have apparently knocked out an Iraqi Silkworm missile site, which would have posed a serious threat to naval or merchant operations in the gulf. Some facts about the Chinese-made missile:

* PURPOSE: Short- to medium-range cruise anti-ship missile designed for shipboard and coastal defense.

* DIMENSIONS: Height, 23.9 feet; weight, 5,060 lbs.; diameter, 2.6 feet.

* GUIDANCE SYSTEM: Midcourse guidance by preprogrammed autopilot with radio command update and height control. Attack guidance by radar.

* ENGINEERING: Derived from the Soviet SS-N-2 “Styx” missile; Chinese name the Fei Lung-1 (Flying Dragon).

* LAUNCH: By ship or mobile launcher.

* RANGE: Maximum range: 62 miles; minimum range unknown.

* ATTACK: Cruises at 100 feet above the water, dropping to 50 feet for the attack.

* DEPLOYMENT: Was used by Iran during Iran-Iraq War against ships transporting Iraqi oil.

* MANUFACTURER: China Precision Machinery Import & Export Corp.

Source: “The World’s Missile Systems,” 1988


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