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Iraq Trying to Shelter Jets in Iran,
U.S. Says

By Rick Atkinson and Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 29, 1991; Page A01

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The number of Iraqi jets flying to Iranian sanctuaries climbed to more than 80 yesterday, and U.S. officials said they now believe the pilots are not defectors but part of an organized effort to save Iraq's air force from allied destruction.

News of the continuing aircraft exodus came as President Bush and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein each proclaimed the righteousness of his cause in the Persian Gulf War and vowed to prevail.

Saddam, in an interview with Cable News Network correspondent Peter Arnett, also suggested that Iraqi forces have the ability to put nuclear, chemical and biological warheads on Scud missiles and would use such warheads if the country's losses become too great. Before the war ends, Arnett quoted Saddam as saying, a great deal of blood would be shed by all combatants.

In a 90-minute interview in a Baghdad bungalow, Saddam said his field commanders are justified in using oil as a tactical weapon because, he alleged, the United States attacked Iraqi tankers and petroleum complexes first. But Saddam appeared to sidestep responsibility for sabotaging a Kuwaiti supertanker terminal, which U.S. officials say has flooded the Persian Gulf with 11 million barrels of crude oil.

Arnett, who paraphrased the Iraqi leader's answers in a telephone report, said Saddam sounded sure of victory. Asked if he had any doubts about winning, Saddam answered "confidently, not even one in a million," Arnett said. The Iraqi leader was also adamant that Kuwait would remain part of Iraq forever.

For his part, Bush declared that the Persian Gulf conflict is not a religious war, but "it has everything to do with what religion embodies -- good versus evil, right versus wrong, human dignity and freedom versus tyranny and oppression."

In a speech to the National Religious Broadcasters convention here, the president added: "The war in the gulf is not a Christian war or a Jewish war or Moslem war. It is a just war. And it is a war with which good will prevail."

Responding to warnings from the Soviet Union and others that the war should not be conducted so vigorously that Iraq is destroyed, Bush declared: "We do not seek the destruction of Iraq . . . . We do not want a country so destabilized that Iraq itself could be a target for aggression."

Saddam appeared to give credence to Pentagon assessments that the wave of Iraqi planes fleeing to Iran -- a contingent now equal to about 10 percent of Iraq's air force before the war -- has been directed to save itself. Arnett quoted Saddam as saying that Iran and Iraq see the war as a battle between faith and infidels and that Iraq would respect the decisions and regulations of Iran, which has declared that any aircraft seeking haven in that country will be impounded until the war ends. But the Iraqi leader did not completely rule out using those planes, which include 60 of his top fighter-bombers, again in the conflict.

Most if not all of the Iraqi combat planes fleeing into Iran appear to be unarmed, a Pentagon official said yesterday. The jets are congregating at several airfields, principally in western Iran, and in some cases are slipping across the border from airfields in northern Iraq, where much of the Iraqi air force was flushed after the allied bombing campaign began Jan. 17, the official said. The Iraqi planes in Iran are "parked as you would see them out at Andrews Air Force Base, in rows, almost as though they were in formation," another official said.

Allied officers, who earlier had suspected the Iraqis might be defecting, now consider the exodus too well organized and too widespread to occur without official sanction from Baghdad. "The interesting question is what the quid pro quo is with Iran. Would you want {Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi} Rafsanjani to be saving your planes if you were Saddam?" a U.S. government analyst of the Middle East said last night.

Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, senior operations officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters yesterday that "we are having great success" in demolishing Iraq's hardened aircraft bunkers, and "I think that's what's behind {Saddam's} moving those high-priced airplanes."

Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Kamal Kharrazi, told reporters in New York: "I don't know what is the intention of the Iraqis, but the pilots are under interrogation. And what I could say to you is that it seems that some of the Iraqis, Iraqi pilots, are going to save their lives and airplanes."

Allied fighters will shoot down any Iraqi aircraft encountered in the air, U.S. officials said. But the 700-mile border between Iraq and Iran is too vast to intercept those wanting to flee, particularly since the dash to sanctuary takes only five or 10 minutes for some of Iraq's jets, the officials explained. U.S. AWACS radar planes "can see 'em with the radars, and that's the speed of light, but the {U.S.} airplanes don't travel at that speed," Kelley said. He later added: "There are not enough airplanes in the world" to patrol "the entire country of Iraq."

Because the Iraqi planes lack ammunition, maintenance, spare parts and training facilities, "I don't think they're going to have much of a capability to launch strikes from Iran," Kelly said, even if Tehran permits such an action. The general later warned, "If they come south to try to attack us, . . . I assure you they'll be dealt with."

Pentagon officials said that Iraqi efforts to preserve an air force slowly being destroyed by allied bombs include scattering the planes from airfields by hiding them on remote highways and elsewhere. The strategy to save "the flower of the air force," as Kelly put it, apparently reflects a decision to husband as much of the Iraqi war machine as possible -- either for use later in the war or to form the nucleus of a rebuilt Iraqi military after the conflict.

A second day of clear skies over Kuwait and Iraq -- coupled with virtually no interference from Iraqi air defenses or fighter interceptors -- permitted allied bombers to roam freely in a hunt for airfields, Scud missiles, communication lines, Republican Guard units and the "Iraqi leadership," Brig. Gen. Pat Stevens IV said yesterday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Stevens, a Central Command logistician, later amended his statement to say the bombers have not targeted any individual Iraqi.

U.S. Navy A-6 jets attacked two Iraqi vessels near Bubiyan Island in the northern gulf, Stevens said, and other bombers attacked patrol boats at the Um Qasr naval base, triggering "many secondary explosions and fires." One allied plane, a U.S. Marine AV-8B Harrier jet, was lost in action, the first reported aircraft loss in several days.

In an ominous postscript to its threat last week to use allied prisoners of war as "human shields" around strategic targets, Iraqi radio said yesterday that some captured pilots have been injured in air raids staged by their comrades. Without providing details, the broadcast said an unspecified number were wounded in raids Sunday and Monday against "populated and civilian targets in Iraq."

Baghdad claims to hold more than 20 American, British and other allied airmen. "The responsible military quarters did not indicate whether any of the injured pilots have died," yesterday's broadcast added.

In minor artillery, rocket and small arms skirmishing along the Saudi-Kuwaiti border, "coalition forces silenced the Iraqi artillery units," Saudi Col. Ahmed Al-Robayan told reporters in Riyadh. British Tornado jets struck fuel depots and Iraqi surface-to-air (SAM) missile sites with "most satisfactory" results, according to Group Capt. Niall Irving of the Royal Air Force.

After a 24-hour hiatus in Iraqi Scud attacks against Saudi Arabia or Israel, the missile volleys began again last night. A Scud fired toward Riyadh was destroyed by Patriot missiles; an hour later, a missile launched at Tel Aviv reportedly fell short without causing injuries. The latest attack on Israel -- the seventh in the last 11 nights -- came as Israeli government sources acknowledged they are pressing the United States to permit military action against Iraq.

In the Persian Gulf, the enormous oil spill that allied officials blame on Iraqi sabotage continued to drift southward at 10 to 15 miles per day, Saudi and U.S. officials said. But the 30-mile-by-10-mile slick, believed to contain as much as 11 million barrels of crude, is no longer growing. "It appears that we have stopped the flow of oil" by attacking two Kuwaiti valve complexes over the weekend, severing the pipeline between inland oil fields and the offshore terminal, Stevens said.

Petroleum engineers and other experts from the United States and other allied nations began converging on Saudi Arabia yesterday to fight the spill, which has not yet touched shore. Television pictures of blackened sea birds on the Saudi coast are from another, smaller spill, U.S. officials confirmed yesterday.

U.S. defense and intelligence officials also said last night they are investigating the possibility that Iraq has deliberately created a second spill at the Mina al Bakr oil terminal at the north end of the gulf, not far from where U.S. warplanes earlier damaged an Iraqi tanker.

"We are looking at this and don't know yet whether they are trying to turn the taps on" at this new site, a senior Pentagon official said.

Allied officials again declined to release detailed battle damage assessments of the bombing campaign, while assuring reporters that the war is going well. Asked about a report in yesterday's Washington Post that only eight of 30 fixed Scud launchers have been fully disabled, Kelly said all of the sites have been bombed at least twice and none has successfully launched a missile. "We will rehit some of them," the general added.

"Yesterday only three {Iraqi} airfields were active and two were being used for escape purposes," Kelly added, responding to the Post's report that two-thirds of the fields remain operational. Except for the stampede toward Iran, Iraqi planes are offering virtually no resistance and the state of their airfields is "relatively immaterial because they're not being used," he said.

Irving, the British group captain, told reporters in Riyadh that Iraq still "can fly fighter airplanes from virtually any airfield. Fighter aircraft, by and large, don't need huge runway distances to get airborne."

Navy Capt. David Herrington, deputy director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs, disputed the Post report that 20 percent of Iraq's air defense radars have been replaced. "There's been about a 95 percent drop in the activity that we observed from the first day to the end of the second and third, and that's continued," Herrington added.

In an interview published by Moscow's Izvestia newspaper yesterday, the Soviet army's top chemical warfare officer estimated that Iraq had an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 tons of chemical and biological weapons before the start of the war, only a portion of which has been destroyed.

Col. Gen. S. Petrov, commander of Soviet Chemical Warfare Troops, said Iraqi stockpiles include mustard and cyanide gas, Siberian ulcer plague and cholera. Iraq also could have stocks of various African disease germs and botulin toxin, which Petrov described as the most lethal bacterially produced substance known to science. "One hundred grams of such a substance could bring death to hundreds of millions of people," the general said. "And if there is a strike on the storage sites of this weapon, the consequence could be most unpredictable."

In the most detailed description of civilian targets allegedly bombed in the first days of the gulf war, Iraq said more than 320 people were killed and about 400 wounded. Residential areas in Baghdad and other cities were struck, as well as a sports stadium, a museum, a church, a moving passenger train, a sugar factory and a water purification plant, according to a letter written to the United Nations by Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and released in Baghdad yesterday. On Jan. 21, allied bombers in southern Iraq inflicted heavy damage to the holy city of Najaf and nearby town of Kufa, killing 144 civilians, Aziz said.

U.S. commanders have insisted that great pains have been taken to avoid civilian casualties, even to the point of endangering allied pilots by plotting bombing runs at certain angles to minimize "collateral damage."

Refugees, including some of the thousands pouring into Jordan from Iraq yesterday following Baghdad's reopening of that border, continued to offer conflicting accounts about the bomb damage. Khalid Tarije, a white-bearded Jordanian, said allied planes attacked a convoy of 20 civilian cars near Rutbah, 70 miles from the border, killing at least eight civilians. But Adnan Singh, an Indian, said that although much of Baghdad is without water, electricity, medicine or food, "most of the damage . . . was to official buildings."

Baghdad Radio, in an invective-filled broadcast, attacked Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, denouncing him as "a frightened coward" who should expect to be assassinated by a countryman soon. Mubarak, Washington's most powerful Arab ally, has betrayed Islam, the broadcast charged.

In an action that appeared to demonstrate Washington's pique at Yemen for voting against the United States during a crucial U.N. Security Council debate on the gulf crisis, the State Department disclosed that it has slashed aid to the Arab nation from a planned $22 million to less than $3 million.

The cut, disclosed in a letter from the department to Congress, came after Yemen joined Cuba on Nov. 29 in voting against the resolution authorizing force to eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait. After that ballot, according to a published report not disputed by the State Department, a U.S. official told the Yemeni ambassador, "That was the most expensive vote you will have cast."

Staff writers David Hoffman and R. Jeffrey Smith, correspondent Edward Cody in Saudi Arabia, special correspondent Trevor Rowe at the United Nations and staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post

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