TEL AVIV, JAN. 26 -- Israel sustained a new barrage of Iraqi Scud missiles tonight, but there were no injuries as U.S.-supplied Patriot missiles blasted most of the incoming warheads to pieces before they hit the ground, officials said.
The performance by the six Patriot batteries now deployed around the country, manned jointly by U.S. and Israeli crews, was the most successful so far for the air-defense system in Israel. It was only the second time in six Iraqi Scud attacks on Israel over the past nine days that no casualties were reported and the first time that a barrage of multiple missile launches by Iraq failed to make a significant impact here.
In Washington, U.S. officials said three Scuds were fired at Haifa and officials here said two were aimed at Tel Aviv. The Israeli Army's spokesman, Gen. Nachman Shai, said the missiles came in two waves about 10 minutes apart.
In Tel Aviv, Patriot missiles appeared to strike at least one of the incoming Scuds high in the air, an apparent improvement over Friday night, when Scuds were hit at low altitudes and scattered shrapnel over a wide area.
Two Patriot missiles streaked north over the city to meet the second incoming Scud, disappearing into a cloud. Seconds later, a ball of light, apparently the remnant of the Iraqi missile, plunged toward the ground, where it landed with a flash of light and a thundering explosion. Officials later said the impact occurred at a deserted beach area.
The army said earlier today that it was satisfied with the performance of the Patriot missiles deployed to defend Tel Aviv and other major cities, despite an encounter with Scuds on Friday night that ended with several major hits on residential areas. One person was killed and 53 wounded in that attack, officials said today.
Military sources said all seven of the Scuds fired from western Iraq Friday night at Israel were hit or deflected by Patriots, but some Scud warheads survived and hit the ground, along with fragments that also caused damage. Officials said an analysis was still underway to determine how much damage on the ground was caused by fragments of the intercepting Patriots and how much by Scud impacts.
However, Col. Raanan Gissen, an army command spokesman, said the army preferred to have Patriots hitting Scuds and exploding over populated areas rather than to allow the Scuds themselves to strike with full force. "When we decided we were going to put in Patriots, we knew it was not a fool-proof solution to incoming Scuds," he said. But "it's better to have a Scud fragmented than to have it land. It's always better to intercept."
Since the Persian Gulf War began on Jan. 17, two Israelis have been killed as a direct result of missile hits, two others have died of heart attacks, and more than 1,200 people have been injured, including 204 hospitalized for moderate to serious injuries, Israel radio reported today. At least 30 of the 204 substantial injuries have been to children, while 110 have been to persons over 65 years old, the report said.
Israel radio said the 23 missiles that hit Israel in five attacks before tonight had caused 4,000 people to be evacuated from their homes.
Brig. Gen. Yehuda Danon, chief medical officer of the Israel Defense Forces, said one death resulted from a direct hit on a house Friday night and the other was a woman who was crushed by debris and cut by shattered glass.
When asked about the effects of shrapnel spraying from Patriot hits, Danon said: "That's a very important question. We are doing a very careful investigation in each one of the cases of injury, and out of the many casualties that we had yesterday -- altogether 53 casualties -- all of them were injured by a blow of the Scud, or explosion of the Scud."
The military command continued to express concern about Iraq's ability to launch high-explosive warhead missiles -- and possibly chemical warhead missiles -- from the western desert of Iraq. All missiles launched so far have had conventional warheads.
Military sources said the Iraqi army, preparing for an eventual offensive against Israel, had long ago built five air bases in western Iraq and a network of stationary Scud missile-launching silos and underground revetments for mobile launchers.
There has been some discussion among military strategists of the possible necessity of either Israel or the United States and its allies in the anti-Iraq coalition undertaking a search-and-destroy ground operation in the approximately 120-mile-long front in the desert where most of the missiles are deployed. So far, Israel has not retaliated for any of the Iraqi attacks, and the U.S.-led coalition has engaged only in air strikes against Iraq.
A debate over the residual effects of Patriot missiles exploding against Scud missiles directly over Tel Aviv -- sometimes at an altitude as low as 140 feet -- has been fueled by witnesses to the missile clashes over the city and the pattern of damage on the ground that appeared to be spread out over an area larger than it would have been if the Scuds had not been intercepted.
Military sources observed that the Patriot missile was designed for "point defense" of targets of limited size, such as air bases, and that normally its computers are programmed to meet an incoming missile at or near its terminal velocity and downward trajectory, which occur close to the target.
To achieve a head-on interception of a Scud missile traveling at six times the speed of sound by a Patriot traveling at twice the speed of sound -- given the limited warning time allowed by current technology -- a meeting of the two missiles over a populated area is almost inevitable if the Scud's target is the center of a city, according to military experts. To achieve a more distant point of contact, the military sources said, more Patriot batteries would be required to achieve an overlapping field of fire.