Allied air attacks have destroyed more than 600 Iraqi tanks, or at least 14 percent of the armored force in greater Kuwait, since the Persian Gulf War began, U.S. and British officials said yesterday.

British Defense Secretary Tom King, whose disclosure of the toll was the first official accounting of the destruction to Iraq's huge tank corps, also said the U.S.-led coalition has knocked out 15 to 20 percent of the Iraqi army's overall fighting capability.

In Saudi Arabia, U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Robert B. Johnston confirmed the tally of destroyed tanks -- many of which belong to Iraq's elite Republican Guard -- while noting that a decision on ground combat would not be based on a specific threshold of damage to enemy forces. Other factors, such as disruption of Iraqi fuel and supply lines, would also be critical in making a judgment that is "more of an art than a science," Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, senior operations officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a Pentagon briefing.

Assessing the strength of Iraq's surviving armor, artillery and infantry is at the top of the agenda of Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who arrived in Saudi Arabia yesterday for three days of consultations with allied commanders and others.

The strength of Iraq's surviving air force ebbed a bit more yesterday with the flight of 13 more jets to Iran, bringing to 147 -- including 121 fighters -- the number seeking sanctuary there, Johnston said. When the aircraft in Iran are counted with at least 134 other planes confirmed destroyed on the ground or in air-to-air combat, more than one-third of Iraq's pre-war air force of 808 planes is now out of the fight, U.S. officials believe. Many more planes may be buried under the rubble of dozens of hardened shelters, officials said.

In a meeting with Cheney yesterday in the western Saudi city of Taif, the exiled emir of Kuwait told the defense secretary that he had received new assurances from Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani this week that the Iraqi aircraft would remain impounded until the war ends. When Sheik Jabir Ahmed Sabah asked why so many Iraqi planes had decamped to the soil of Baghdad's former archenemy, Cheney replied that Iraq had no other way to preserve at least a fragment of its air force, according to U.S. officials in Taif.

In brief remarks to a cheering crowd of 200 pilots and crew members gathered in an F-111 bomber hangar in western Saudi Arabia, Cheney described the first 23 days of Operations Desert Storm as "the most successful air campaign in the history of the world."

Powell followed by warning that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has "seen what our air force can do {but} he's going to see a lot more of it in the days and weeks ahead." Alluding to the half-million-man Iraqi army still entrenched in and around Kuwait, the general added: "We tried to give {Saddam} some good advice a few months ago. We told him, 'Move it or lose it.' They wouldn't move it; now they're going to lose it." Bridges to Kuwait Attacked

Continuing to make good on that threat, allied pilots flew another 2,500 sorties yesterday, including 600 against targets in Kuwait. Noting that the bombing included new attacks on nine major bridges leading to Kuwait, Johnston said supplies to the entrenched Iraqis remain cut by about 90 percent.

Iraq fired its 30th Scud missile at Israel, and a portion of the rocket struck a residential neighborhood in greater Tel Aviv, injuring at least 17 persons.

The impact of the first missile attack in six nights dug a 6-foot-wide crater in a street lined with two-story homes. One house was set afire and several others were badly damaged. Another piece of the missile landed in a nearby shopping street, shattering windows.

Residents said Patriot air defense missiles were fired at the Scud, but the Army refused to give details of the incident, which occurred around 2:40 a.m. Saturday (7:40 p.m. EST).

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir indicated earlier this week that Israel would not retaliate unless a missile attack caused heavy casualties or involved chemical weapons.

There were sporadic artillery exchanges yesterday, and the USS Wisconsin lobbed shells to support a Marine reconnaissance team that crept into southern Kuwait Thursday night, according to the ship's skipper, Capt. David S. Bill. The Pentagon's Kelly described Iraqi soldiers as sitting in their holes, hiding." He said the drubbing taken by several Iraqi battalions at last month's battle of Khafji apparently taught the Iraqi commanders that "it's not very wise" to emerge from their fortified positions without an air force to protect them.

Moreover, Lt. Gen. Khalid bin Sultan, commander of the Arab forces in Operation Desert Storm, yesterday said some of the 936 Iraqi prisoners in Saudi custody have reported the formation of Iraqi "execution battalions" to punish deserters. Khalid, who is the son of the Saudi defense minister, acknowledged a lack of hard evidence that actual executions have taken place. Similar Iraqi units, called "punishment battalions," operated during the Iran-Iraq war, according to author Dilip Hiro.

Cheney and the exiled Kuwaiti emir also discussed Iraq's suspected sabotage of Kuwaiti oil wells and petroleum production facilities. "The Kuwaitis are very concerned about the oil wells," a U.S. official said, but have little information about Iraq's reported mining of hundreds of wellheads, either in pursuit of a tactical advantage in future ground fighting or as part of a vengeful, scorched-earth policy.Desalination Plant Closed

The enormous Persian Gulf oil slick that resulted when Iraq allegedly opened the valves of a Kuwaiti supertanker terminal forced the first reported closure of a desalination plant yesterday. The plant at Safaniya on the northern Saudi coast was shut down as a preventive measure before oil seeped into intake valves, Saudi environmental officials said.

Run by the oil company Saudi Aramco, the plant is a relatively small one used to provide fresh water to employees in the area. U.S. officials estimated that the huge spill, blamed on the alleged Iraqi sabotage of Kuwaiti oil facilities, is still 40 to 60 miles from the desalination plant at Jubail, which provides water for the Saudi capital and parts of the country's Eastern Province.

Two dozen ships are mopping up the oil, including a Norwegian vessel that has swallowed 1.75 million gallons of oil and water in a week, according to a U.S. Coast Guard official helping in the cleanup. The largest section of the fragmented spill now measures 70 miles long by 80 miles wide, the official estimated.

Journalists in Baghdad yesterday reported that the Iraqi capital had experienced fewer bombing and missile attacks than in recent nights, although allied forces did destroy a major communications center while also completing destruction of the previously damaged al-Jomhouriya Bridge. Witnesses told a Reuter correspondent that several people had been killed or wounded.

Travelers arriving in Baghdad from the southern port city of Basra and the northern city of Mosul reported no let up in the intensive attacks on those cities, according to the Associated Press.

Iraqi authorities, in a radio broadcast, said the nation is more determined than ever in the "showdown" with the West. Bush and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia unleashed "a monster" that was targeting children and other civilians, another broadcast alleged, for which "a curse will haunt" the two leaders "until doomsday."Civilian Casualties

U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar yesterday expressed concern over civilian casualties in Iraq and called for an intensified diplomatic effort to end the war. "It is disturbing to hear from various reports, that civilian casualties are mounting and that damage to residential areas throughout has been widespread," he told the Security Council.

Since the war began, Iraq has criticized the secretary general personally for failing to condemn the allied bombing campaign. Some U.N. members have expressed growing concern that the image of an organization devoted to peace has been tarnished by the authorization of force against Iraq.

"Excellent" flying conditions yesterday contributed to the success of British Tornadoes during an attack on a refinery in west central Iraq, "carried out with lots of enthusiasm and lots of flames," Group Capt. Niall Irving of the Royal Air Force told reporters. Eight other Tornadoes attacked oil storage facilities in eastern Iraq, while an equal number of Jaguar bombers attacked eight Republican Guard artillery positions that are well-dispersed and fortified with sand berms, Irving added.

A 75-foot Iraqi patrol boat armed with five machine guns was struck with a British missile, leaving it "in flames {with} thick black smoke engulfing the whole vessel," Irving said. Allied naval dominance is so complete now, he added, that it may be possible to operate up the Shatt-al-Arab, the Iraqi waterway river that empties into the Persian Gulf, "without serious threat from surface patrol craft."

Iraq's apparent refusal to allow International Red Cross inspectors access to allied pilots held prisoner triggered harsh criticism yesterday from the Pentagon and White House. "We have heard nothing from Iraq. We have heard nothing from the International Red Cross" on the prisoner of war issue, Kelly said at the Pentagon. He called the Iraqi recalcitrance "disgraceful."

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater added, "Once again . . . this demonstrates the total disregard that Saddam Hussein has for international law, for human life and civilized behavior."

The huge coalition of armies poised in the Saudi desert gained another ally yesterday when 350 Afghan mujaheddin fighters arrived, a State Department official said. The guerrillas, vanguard of a 2,000-man force promised by Afghan rebel leaders shortly after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, came from several groups fighting the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Staff writers Dan Balz and Al Kamen in Washington, Glenn Frankel in London, Jackson Diehl in Tel Aviv, Barton Gellman in Saudi Arabia, special correspondent Trevor Rowe at the United Nations and staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

U.S. troop presence in the region is 505,228, supported by more than 205,000 coalition troops.

Iraq has 545,000 troops in the Kuwaiti theater, including roughly 150,000 in the Republican Guard.


U.S. and coalition warplanes continued hammering targets in Kuwait and Iraq yesterday, flying more than 2,500 sorties. The Kuwaiti theater of operations was the target of more than 600 sorties yesterday, including roughly 150 against the Republican Guard. British officials in Riyadh confirmed that more than half of the 42 bridges on key military supply routes have been destroyed. Total sorties flown now exceed 55,000.


U.S. warplanes knocked out an Iraqi mobile launcher and one Scud missile. Three other launchers may have been hit. One Scud launched toward Riyadh early Friday was destroyed by a Patriot missile. Another launched this morning at Tel Aviv landed in a residential neighborhood.


U.S. officials in Riyadh confirmed that more than 600 tanks -- more than 14 percent of the Iraqi force in greater Kuwait -- have been destroyed. Officials also said that 32 Iraqi planes and three helicopters have been destroyed in air-to-air combat to date, plus at least 99 planes on the ground. Fifteen U.S. and seven coalition planes have been confirmed lost to hostile fire.


Scattered Iraqi probes and patrols continued along the border yesterday. U.S. Marines reportedly fired more than 100 rounds at a suspected Iraqi artillery battery in Kuwait.


12 killed in action

12 wounded in action

27 missing in action

3 missing, non-combat

8 prisoners of war


U.S. officials confirmed that 13 more Iraqi jets fled to Iran, bringing the total there to 147. One hundred twenty-one of the planes are top of the line fighters, the rest are transports.


Seven Iraqi soldiers surrendered to U.S. authorities Friday, bringing to more than 40 the number of Iraqi prisoners of war in U.S. hands. Saudi officials are holding 936 Iraqi POWs. Briefers said yesterday that 418 Iraqis who gave themselves up to Saudi forces from Aug. 3 to Jan. 17 have been classified "military refugees."