Coalition Plays Waiting Game

Despite Iraq's probing attack into Saudi Arabia, ground war is not expected for some weeks

AS the war against Iraq enters its third week, it remains heavily one sided with the coalition forces still inflicting vastly more damage than they are experiencing. United States military officials say they are puzzled by two Iraqi responses to their attacks over the past few days.

Firstly, they claim they have no clear idea why about 100 Iraqi Air Force planes, including many of its top-of-the-line, Soviet-built MIG 29s and French Mirage F-1s, have sought refuge in Iran.

Secondly, the officials say they are mystified by Iraq's decision to spill millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf - an act, they argue, that could have no military purpose.

Meanwhile, coalition air strikes have reached their highest pitch yet, military spokesman say, with the nine air forces involved flying as many as 2,600 sorties a day. Pilots are taking advantage of breaks in the winter weather to turn their bombing raids away from strategic targets to concentrate on Iraqi troop units in and around Kuwait.

Iraqi forces suffered heavy losses yesterday after they initiated a three-pronged attack on coalition ground troops at Saudi Arabian border towns, although Pentagon officials refused to characterize the event as the start of a ground war. Eight to 10 US marines were reportedly killed - the first American ground forces to die in the war.

At 9:30 p.m. Saudi time Tuesday, Iraqi forces crossed the Kuwaiti-Saudi border and engaged coalition forces at Ras al-Khafji and two towns to the east, a Pentagon official said. The Iraqi forces were driven back about 5 and a half hours later. Ground forces were no longer involved, but the air strikes continued.

Iraqis claim success

Iraqi Radio, however, put a different spin on the action.

``Our heroic soldiers entered the Saudi town of al-Khafji today and destroyed enemy troops there,'' Iraqi radio quoted a military spokesman as saying.

Coalition military spokesmen say they are now assured of air superiority over Iraq and Kuwait, mainly because the Iraqi Air Force has generally chosen not to fight. The 100 or so planes that have flown to Iranian airfields greatly outnumber the 23 Iraqi planes shot down in combat, according to US figures, and the 26 destroyed on the ground. The overall Iraqi Air Force strength is estimated at 700 planes.

What those planes are doing in Iran is still a mystery, officials here say. ``I really can't figure, militarily, what's behind that move,'' Gen. Thomas Kelly told Pentagon reporters this week, adding that he did not know if the flights had been approved by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein or by senior Iraqi Air Force officers.

It was unclear why coalition aircraft - which spokesmen say could intercept any attempt by the Iraqi planes to return to the theater of operations - did not attempt to shoot down the planes as they fled.

The Iranian government, insisting on its neutrality in the war, says the planes will be impounded until the end of hostilities. US officials say they are taking Tehran at its word.

``I think their fleeing to Iran is more a sign of weakness than of some devious plot'' between Iraq and Iran, General Kelly said.

Military officers say they are equally unsure what to make of Iraq's apparently deliberate spilling of oil from the Mina al-Ahmadi sea island terminal off the Kuwaiti coast, beyond branding it an act of ``environmental terrorism.''

If the goal was to hinder a possible amphibious assault, US Navy officers say, it has failed. The slick never properly caught alight to create the wall of fire that some observers had feared. Also vessels used in any beach attack are fitted with filters protecting them from damage by oil in the water, according to commanders in charge of such planning.

Slick stanched

The slick, reported to be 60 miles long and 20 miles wide, is no longer growing since US planes bombed the pumping station at Mina al-Ahmadi on Sunday, stanching the flow of oil, according to US Gen. Pat Stevens.

As US and coalition pilots fly around-the-clock sorties against Iraqi troop positions, supply routes, ammunition dumps, and communications lines, B-52 heavy bombers are concentrating especially hard on destroying positions held by the elite Republican Guard along Kuwait's Western border, officials say.

But they are cautious in estimating the effects these raids have had, saying only that the hundreds of thousands of pounds of high explosive dropped on Iraqi lines ``are doing some damage,'' as General Stevens put it.

``They are very well dug in,'' adds Col. Manfred Rietsch, commander of a Marine aircraft unit involved in the strikes. ``We're hurting them, but it's hard to quantify how much we're hurting them. All we can do is demoralize them and take away some of their supplies and reduce their numbers somewhat.''

Only when the Iraqi tanks, artillery, and other equipment come out of their underground shelters to fight will it become clear what damage has been done, Colonel Rietsch explains, and ``a ground campaign will be the only way to find out.''

Commanding officers in tank units are planning training maneuvers to prepare their men for unaccustomed desert tactics.

Meanwhile, the combat engineers who will clear Iraqi minefields and fortified defenses are practising the tasks they expect soon to be carrying out under enemy fire.

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