MOSCOW, JAN. 25 -- An unofficial Soviet news agency reported today that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had executed the commanders of the Iraqi air force and antiaircraft defense because of heavy losses in the early days of the Persian Gulf war.
The Interfax report, which cited Soviet Defense Ministry officials, could not be confirmed independently. A spokesman for the Iraqi Embassy in Moscow dismissed the report as "psychological warfare" against Baghdad.
As Iraq's biggest weapons supplier before the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, the Soviet Union traditionally has had access to confidential information about developments in Iraq, and still has a functioning embassy in Baghdad. Defense Ministry officials insist that the last Soviet military adviser left Iraq Jan. 9.
Interfax diplomatic correspondent Pyotr Vasiliev said a high-ranking Soviet Defense Ministry official told him that the executions were carried out two or three days ago. According to his informant, Saddam ordered the executions because of great losses sustained by the Iraqi air force on land as a result of allied air strikes.
Interfax said that Iraq had lost 26 of its 100 Scud missile installations and about 300 of its 700 planes. The allies have flown more than 15,000 missions, about half of them bombing runs, against Iraq since the war began last week.
Since the outbreak of hostilities, the Kremlin has maintained diplomatic support for the U.S.-led effort to get Iraq out of Kuwait, but has steered clear of even symbolic participation in the war. A senior Western diplomat in Moscow said he has not detected any sign of backsliding by the Soviet Union on promises not to resupply Iraq.
Most Soviet and Western analysts in Moscow have said the Kremlin is unlikely to alter its gulf policy significantly at a time when President Mikhail Gorbachev is preoccupied with domestic crises. Moscow's cooperation with the West in the Persian Gulf crisis appears to have been a factor in persuading Washington to exercise restraint in criticizing Gorbachev for using the army to crack down on separatism in the Baltic states.
But over the longer term, it generally is accepted that East-West cooperation could evaporate if a hard-line regime came to power in Moscow. In an interview with the Communist youth daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev predicted that "all our foreign policy achievements will go to pot" if conservatives gain the upper hand.
"The democratic countries of the West will start criticizing the dictatorial regime and the conservatives will have to look for new friends and allies in the international arena. Saddam Hussein suits such a role ideally. He is a child of our totalitarianism, brought up under the guardianship of our ideology with the help of huge arms supplies," Kozyrev said.
Soviet military experts appear to differ on the effectiveness of allied air raids against Iraq. One Defense Ministry official told Interfax that U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles have been used effectively against Iraqi air defense systems, but another said that Iraq was making good use of decoys and camouflage systems.
Interfax quoted Gen. Georgi Zhivets, a member of the general staff, as saying that nearly 90 percent of allied bombing raids against Iraq had failed to hit their targets. He predicted that Iraq would make good use of burning oil fields to screen targets from allied strikes.
A Soviet general writing in the government newspaper Izvestia said the Iraqi military had managed to retain most of its antiaircraft potential and minimize aircraft losses in the first days of the war because of a flexible control system and effective camouflage.