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Allied Aircraft Pound Iraqis in ‘Turkey Shoot’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

American helicopters and jets hammered Iraqi tanks, trucks and armored personnel carriers in what one pilot described Tuesday as a “turkey shoot,” and a senior U.S. military source said the month-old air campaign is inflicting “horrendous casualties” on Saddam Hussein’s forces.

Baghdad came under repeated bombardment overnight and French fighter-bombers attacked Hussein’s artillery positions in Kuwait and Iraq as allied forces intensified their attempts to strip Iraqi troops of their will to fight in what many believe are the final hours before a massive, U.S.-led ground offensive.

As jets and helicopters pounded away at their targets, bringing to more than 83,000 the number of sorties flown against the Iraqis, successful attacks against fortified positions and other Iraqi targets have been increasing dramatically, U.S. military officials said Tuesday.

Citing no specifics, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney estimated that there has been “somewhere between 30% and 40% degradation of the heavy forces that (Hussein) has employed, infantry and mechanized.” Pentagon officials said the figures referred only to equipment.

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Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), who returned recently from a tour of the combat zone, said Cheney’s estimates were 10% to 15% lower than figures he had received a few days earlier from Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, U.S. commander of Operation Desert Storm.

The military source’s description of Iraqi casualties was not accompanied by numbers, but an Iranian newspaper reported Tuesday that more than 20,000 Iraqis had been killed and 60,000 wounded since the beginning of the war.

The Jamhouri Islami newspaper said that Iraq’s deputy prime minister, Sadoun Hammadi, had reported those figures to Iranian officials in talks last week.

“I think they have suffered horrendous casualties, not just killed but wounded,” said a knowledgeable military source in Riyadh. “And it’s been well documented that their medical system is terrible. So we’re back to the (American) Civil War thing, where if you are wounded, then you will probably end up dying.”

Another military source added that while the relentless attacks are systematically reducing Hussein’s tanks, artillery, communications and supply networks, “the point of diminishing returns has not yet been reached. . . .

“He’s still got fight,” the source said. “He’s well dug in, well trained. But we’re killing a lot of them.”

In other developments:

* A lone Iraqi Scud missile hit central Israel on Tuesday night, but caused no injuries, military officials said. The impact area includes the West Bank, but not Tel Aviv, where Scuds have caused their worst damage.

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* Although U.S. military officials had said Monday that two warships damaged by Iraqi mines remained “fully mission capable,” one vessel, the Princeton, was pulled out of action Tuesday and sent to port for damage assessment.

* In Washington, defense officials asserted that U.S. combat units were ready for the impending ground war. Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Kelly, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the diplomatic maneuvering in Washington, Moscow and Baghdad would have “no impact” on military activities. “We are continuing to prepare for combat,” Kelly said at a Pentagon briefing on Tuesday. “As a matter of fact, we are ready now if the leadership decides that that’s what they want to do.”

* Cheney said financial commitments by allies now total $41 billion, with $9 billion cash on hand and an additional $2.2 billion expected from Germany this week. He said the Administration would send a request to Congress Friday for a supplemental appropriation for the cost of Operation Desert Storm. He did not say how much it would be, but it has been widely reported to be $15 billion, making the total cost of the war $56 billion to date.

Allied Attacks

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U.S. Army Apache helicopters and A-10 jets swooped down on Hussein’s tanks, trucks, armored vehicles and artillery positions more than 50 miles inside the Iraqi border in a night raid that caused major damage, according to military sources.

The high-tech Apache “tank-killers” attacked without running lights, using infrared sensors and invisible laser beams to guide them to their targets in the black of night.

Pilots said they fired missiles, rockets and 30-millimeter cannon, knocking out two tanks, one armored vehicle and several trucks, according to reports.

“It was not a good night for the Iraqis,” said Capt. Jess Farrington, 32, a unit commander from Milton, Fla. “We caught them with their shorts down. . . . It was a real turkey shoot.”

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There was no report on Iraqi casualties. Some U.S. pilots reported receiving antiaircraft and small-arms fire, but none of the attacking aircraft were damaged.

The Apache, which resembles a giant insect, has won the respect of the ground troops it supports. “It’s ugly, but it’s ominous,” said Capt. Stewart Hamilton, 34, of Haven, Kan.

“We dealt them some serious punishment,” said Maj. Lee Stuart, executive officer of a paratroop battalion. “The Apaches rule the night.”

In another raid, helicopter-borne Army troops landed “north of the Saudi border"--whether inside Iraq or Kuwait was not reported--and took 52 Iraqi soldiers prisoner at two bunkers, according to pool reports.

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Again, there were no reports of U.S. casualties.

In another incident Tuesday, Iraqis dropped 20 to 30 artillery shells on an unidentified U.S. unit at the front, wounding one American, officials in Riyadh said.

The thunderous attacks of American B-52 bombers continued, as evidenced by the earth tremors felt miles away by allied troops, but no details were made available.

Allied warplanes bombed Baghdad repeatedly late Monday and early Tuesday in some of the heaviest attacks on the Iraqi capital in recent days, according to Western news reports.

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Black clouds of smoke drifted over the city and antiaircraft fire lit up the sky. There were no immediate reports on what was hit in the raids or whether there were any casualties.

Marines rained artillery fire on Iraqi bunkers and troop concentrations in Kuwait near the Wafra oil field north of the Saudi border on Tuesday, according to pool reports. At least seven secondary explosions were heard, indicating hits on ammunition or fuel storage areas.

Soldiers of the 24th Infantry Division from Ft. Stewart, Ga., captured what is believed to be the first Iraqi flag taken by allied main force ground troops early Monday, according to a pool report. The flag was taken from an unoccupied guard post half a mile north of the Saudi border during a reconnaissance mission by two platoons.

During his daily briefing in Riyadh on Tuesday night, Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal said that an American A-10 Warthog battlefield support plane was shot down over Kuwait and the fate of the pilot remained unknown. He also said that an American A-6 jet attacked a number of aircraft spotted on the ground in Iraqi territory and that five were destroyed.

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Damage to Iraq

Defense Secretary Cheney told a congressional hearing in Washington that after a month of operations against Hussein’s forces, “we have destroyed his nuclear production capability . . . his biological production and storage capability . . . a lot of his chemical production and storage capability . . . destroyed his navy, collapsed his air force (and) taken out most of his air defense.”

A military source in Riyadh said Iraqi lines of communications in the Kuwait area have been so severely damaged that messages were being sent via motorcycle. He said that enough ground wire had been strung out to “start a copper mine” in an effort to keep communication lines open.

Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the congressional hearing in Washington that as a result of continuing allied pressure, the Iraqi army “has quite a few weaknesses.”

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But despite major damage to its air support, logistics, command and communications systems and major losses in the field, the Iraqi army remains a force to be reckoned with, Powell said.

“It is still a force that is intact,” he said. “It is under the control of its commanders. It is responding to political direction. I would neither underestimate its capability nor overestimate its capability.”

Scud Attack

As warning sirens alerted Israel to an incoming Scud just before 8 p.m., reporters in Tel Aviv heard what they described as the launch of at least two U.S.-supplied Patriot interceptors. Israeli television broadcast what appeared to be a Patriot destroying the incoming missile, but there was no official confirmation of a successful interception.

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“So far we have no reports of injuries or damage,” said chief army spokesman Brig. Gen. Nachman Shai.

Officials said the missile carried a conventional warhead, as have all the others launched at Israel. Israeli policy prohibits specifically identifying where a missile has hit.

Arab residents of a town in central Israel told the Associated Press that they heard a loud boom and pointed to a small hole in a courtyard where they said debris from the missile had damaged the concrete. Police took the debris away, they said.

Reports that Palestinians in the occupied territories have gone to rooftops to cheer incoming Iraqi missiles prompted one man to shout at reporters: “Write this: We were not on top of the roofs, and we were not applauding.”

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Iraqi Mine Damage

The $1-billion guided missile cruiser Princeton limped back under tow to a Persian Gulf port for inspection Tuesday, a day after a so-called “influence mine” jammed its port rudder and created a leak in its port propeller-shaft seal, U.S. military officials said. Unconfirmed reports also said the technology-laden ship suffered hull damage and cracks in its superstructure.

The Princeton was damaged about three hours after a contact mine ripped a 16-by-20-foot hole in the hull of the amphibious assault ship Tripoli, flagship of a U.S.-led mine countermeasures group, in the northern Persian Gulf. The Tripoli’s crew patched the hull and repair crews continued to work on the 600-foot-long ship in an effort to keep it in action.

The two ships “had other information that that channel was cleared,” Kelly said in Washington. “They were actually up there looking for mines, and they didn’t find at least two--or found them in an awkward way.”

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Influence mines are sophisticated devices that sit on the sea bottom until they are triggered by noise, water pressure or the magnetic “signature” of a passing ship.

“Battleships have different sounds from submarines,” one Navy official said in Washington, “and it’s possible this (mine) was set for this type of ship (a guided-missile cruiser).”

The mine field where the Tripoli was hit has been “identified, boxed” and charted, a senior U.S. military official said Tuesday. No minesweepers had cleared the area earlier, officials said, because a number of vessels regularly moved through that part of the Gulf without incident.

But the two explosions clearly complicate any plans in the works for the 18,000 Marines aboard a flotilla of about 30 ships to launch an amphibious assault along that section of the Kuwaiti coast.

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A dozen minesweepers from the U.S., Saudi and European navies crisscrossed the channel Tuesday in the hunt for thousands of mines believed planted by the Iraqis--some during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. A British frigate spotted and marked a floating mine that was later detonated by U.S. divers.

Times staff writers Paul Houston and John M. Broder, in Washington, contributed to this story.


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