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Count Tops 80 as More Iraqi Planes Fly to Shelter in Iran : Gulf War: Some captured allied pilots have been injured by strikes on civilian targets, Iraq says. Bombing has stemmed the oil spill, U.S. reports.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The unexplained exodus of Iraqi planes to shelter in Iran topped 80 Monday as U.S. officials said they are considering flying fighter patrols over northern Iraq to detect, and perhaps intercept, the jets.

Army Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Kelly, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Washington that the more than 60 fighter-bombers and more than 20 transport planes that have flown to Iran are “top-of-the-line aircraft.”

The planes have eluded sporadic allied sorties in Iran-Iraq border areas, and the Iranians “appear to be letting them in, letting them land,” Kelly said.

“They say they are going to impound them,” he said. “But if they don’t . . . (and the planes return to the war) . . . we will deal with them.”

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In Riyadh, British Group Capt. Naill Irving said that with scores of Iraqi planes on the ground in Iran and hundreds more apparently hidden, out of action, in underground hangars in Iraq, “the extent to which the Iraqi air force can operate is hardly worth talking about.”

But “we are not forgetting they are there,” the U.S. Army’s Brig. Gen. Pat Stevens IV added.

In other developments on the 12th day of the war:

* Iraq claimed in a radio broadcast Monday that some captured allied pilots have been wounded in Desert Storm air strikes on “populated and civilian targets in Iraq.” The broadcast, monitored in Nicosia, Cyprus, gave no further details, saying only that “the responsible military headquarters did not indicate whether any of the injured pilots have died.” Iraq, which claims that it has captured 20 downed fliers, has said it would place some of them as human shields at potential air strike targets.

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* Iraq launched two more Scud missiles, one toward Tel Aviv, the other toward Riyadh, bringing the total number of Scuds fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia to at least 53. Officials said a Patriot interceptor missile destroyed the Scud aimed at Riyadh. In Israel, no Patriots were launched, but the Scud appeared to have broken up short of its target, with debris raining down on Palestinian villages in the occupied West Bank. There were no reports of injuries in either of Monday’s attacks.

* The torrent of oil pouring into Persian Gulf waters was “down to a trickle, if at all,” after U.S. bombs destroyed the valves and pumps that control the flow, American officials said. This main spill now covers about 350 square miles of the gulf but has not yet touched shore, said Capt. David Herrington, deputy director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The widely publicized television pictures of oil-drenched birds and petroleum washing up on Saudi beaches come from a second, much smaller spill that may have begun when Iraq shelled an oil storage tank near the border town of Khafji, he added.

* President Bush, in a speech to religious broadcasters, defended the battle against Iraq as a “just war.” The speech, aides said, foreshadowed the general tone of Bush’s State of the Union speech, planned for tonight.

* A Marine Corps AV-8 Harrier jet went down over Iraq on Monday--the 11th American warplane lost in combat during a total of more than 25,000 sorties. It was the first allied warplane lost in three days. Officials said the pilot is the 14th American listed as missing in action. They said the Harrier apparently was shot down by Iraqi ground fire.

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The Flights to Iran

U.S. officials insisted Monday that their efforts to destroy Iraq’s air power are proceeding according to plan.

Iraq’s planes “will either be destroyed on the ground or in the air,” Gen. Kelly said Monday at the daily Pentagon briefing.

In fact, however, a steadily increasing number of Iraq’s planes--what Kelly termed “the flower of the (Iraqi) air force"--appears to be flying into neighboring Iran. As of Monday night, U.S. officials put the number at more than 80, while their British counterparts said the total may have reached 100.

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Iran has acknowledged a much smaller number of Iraqi planes landing in its territory. On Monday, Iranian officials said six more Iraqi planes had entered their country, with four landing safely and two crashing. One Iraqi pilot was killed and one is missing, the Iranian news agency said.

Officially, U.S. commanders said they considered the exodus of planes to Iran a positive development.

“We are delighted to see that because every one of those aircraft that leaves Iraq is one less that we will have to engage in combat,” said the Army’s Brig. Gen. Stevens.

In private, however, officials expressed doubts and confusion about what is going on.

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American satellites and radar have been able to track the planes flying the short distance from Iraqi airfields across the border to Iran, but not quickly enough to allow allied planes to catch the Iraqis and down them, Kelly said.

“As they run in that direction, we would have to go get them, and we don’t fly that fast,” Kelly said.

“If we have our aircraft up, and they’re over Iraqi territory, we will attack and shoot them down,” he said. But he added that “there are not enough planes in the world” to keep all of Iraq covered at all times.

That situation could improve, however, if the allied air forces begin moving planes farther north into Iraq to increase their ability to shoot down Iraqi planes before they can cross the border, a step Pentagon officials said might be taken.

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At the United Nations, Iran’s Ambassador Kamal Kharrazi said that the Iraqi pilots are being interrogated, and “it seemed that some of (them) are trying to save their lives and their aircraft.”

Kharrazi said the planes would be held until the end of the war and the pilots interned under Geneva Convention rules covering the treatment of prisoners of war.

U.S. officials said they have little choice but to take at face value the Iranian assurances that the planes will be impounded.

“What else are we going to do, bomb Iran?” asked one senior defense official.

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The large number of planes moving into Iran, many from two airfields in the northern part of Iraq, diminishes the possibility that the flights could merely be unplanned decisions by individual pilots, although it could indicate carefully planned mass defections.

But if the flights are part of an overall plan, Pentagon officials do not know whose plan it is or what the end purpose may be.

One knowledgeable official, reflecting the widespread confusion on the matter at the Pentagon, said “this could be the greatest deception job in history, if the Iranians are in bed with the Iraqis on this. That would be worse than the Molotov-Von Ribbentrop pact"--the nonaggression accord between the Soviet Union and Germany that Adolf Hitler broke when he attacked the Soviets in 1941.

The Air War

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Iraq’s ability to repair facilities damaged by allied air attacks has surprised U.S. officials, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater conceded Monday.

“They’ve been better than anticipated in terms of rebuilding their equipment,” Fitzwater said.

Airfields that have been put out of commission have been repaired and now must be bombed again, Pentagon officials said. Key supply lines have proven difficult to cut. And Iraqi Scud missile launchers continue to prove elusive.

Nonetheless, officials insisted the war continues to go more or less as anticipated. In the air, said Kelly, “we can go anywhere we want, whenever we want. Every time they send an airplane up to do something about it, it gets shot down. . . . “We’re 12 days into this campaign. If you read history, that’s not a very long time,” he added. “We’re facing one of the largest military organizations in the world. It’s going to take a little time, but we’re enjoying success.”

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Kelly said reports that most Iranian airfields and permanent Scud launching sites are still operative did not concern allied commanders.

“All 30 fixed sites have been attacked and hit,” he said. “Some of them have been totally destroyed. We have re-hit some of them; we will re-hit some of them. And to date, we know of no Scud launch that came out of a fixed site. So we think we’re doing pretty good against fixed sites.”

Kelly added that the sorties flown out of Iraqi airfields are either resulting in the destruction of Iraqi jets in dogfights or in flights to Iran..

Iraq reported Monday that allied air strikes have killed 345 and wounded almost 450 Iraqi civilians.

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Another Iraqi target of considerable propaganda importance may have been destroyed by air attacks. Iran’s state radio reported that Iraqi Television, which normally can be received in much of western Iran, was not broadcasting on Monday night and had been off the air since Sunday.

Television has been a key tool in Hussein’s control over his country, and U.S. officials have repeatedly said that Iraq’s broadcasting capability was a target.

Saudi Arabia

In Saudi Arabia, U.S. officials disclosed that troops from the 2nd Marine Division shelled Iraqi positions in what was described as the largest such attack to date by allied forces.

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The attack occurred late Sunday night and early Monday morning, but U.S. military censors did not release a news pool report describing it until late Monday.

Although the ground troops were unable to see their targets, they said the bright orange flashes that lit the skyline afterward indicated secondary explosions signaling successful hits, according to the pool reports.

As the war continued, Iraq’s Scud missile attacks appear to be having a growing effect on Saudi Arabia.

An estimated 250,000 people have left Riyadh, the Saudi capital, since the fighting began Jan. 17, a high-ranking Western diplomat said. The Saudi government, citing concerns about the war, extended school vacation until Feb. 16. Vacations for all students from the elementary through university levels had been scheduled to end Feb. 2.

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The diplomat also said that the Saudis had made it clear that a high priority was ridding the region of Saddam Hussein--a feeling that was exacerbated by the firing of the Scud missiles, followed by the spill of oil into the Persian Gulf.

“One thing they don’t want is Saddam alive and running things,” said the diplomat. “They are determined to rid the region of that man.”

Diplomacy

In Washington, Jacques F. Poos, foreign minister of Luxembourg and president of the European Community for the first six months of this year, met with Secretary of State James A. Baker III and said he was bringing “a message of (European) solidarity with the United States. . . . There is total solidarity about victory in that war.”

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Poos added that “there are no European peace initiatives on the table now. The only man who can make a peace initiative is Saddam Hussein, himself, by getting out of Kuwait.”


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