WASHINGTON -- Six Iraqi army transport helicopters flew into Saudi Arabia from occupied Kuwait late last night in the most dramatic defection to date from Iraq's armed forces, according to U.S. military sources.
The aircraft, identified by U.S. sources as Soviet-made Hip-E medium helicopters, were promptly met by Saudi F-15 and U.S. Navy F-18 jet fighters when they crossed into Saudi Arabian airspace, a source at the Pentagon said.
No shots were exchanged, said the source, who added that the fighters then escorted four of the Iraqi helicopters to Ra's al-Khafji airfield, located near Saudi Arabia's Persian Gulf coast, about 12 miles south of the Kuwaiti border.
The other two helicopters ran out of fuel and landed safely in the desert, spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Gallagher said in Saudi Arabia.
U.S. military sources with knowledge of the defections said they did not know how many Iraqis were aboard the aircraft. The Iraqis, who asked for asylum in Saudi Arabia, were in Saudi custody for interrogation, the sources said.
About 400 Iraqi officers and soldiers have trekked across the border into Saudi Arabia and Turkey since the invasion of Kuwait Aug. 2, U.S. military sources said. Many deserters have told of poor morale within the Iraqi military, a senior U.S. military officer said.
One Iraqi soldier told reporters in Saudi Arabia recently that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had ordered the execution of six generals and 120 other officers who had either opposed the invasion of Kuwait or had failed to carry out fully their invasion orders. Other defectors reportedly have complained of inadequate supplies of food and water in Kuwait.
In Iraq, Information Minister Latif Nusayyif al-Jasim denied that any defections had occurred yesterday, telling the Iraqi News Agency, "This is a baseless and unfounded report."
The official news agency quoted him as saying that the report was "wishful thinking" and that it was part of U.S. efforts to create confusion. "What confirms the falsehood of this report is that Iraqi aircraft were not engaged in any activities today," the agency reported the Iraqi minister as saying.
Iraq reportedly has about 160 armed helicopters, including Soviet-supplied Mi-24 Hind attack aircraft and French-made SA-321 Super Frelons, some armed with Exocet missiles.
The type of helicopters that fled Kuwait yesterday are twin-turbined transport aircraft that usually are armed with a gun and an array of rockets or projectiles, according to the authoritative "Jane's All the World's Aircraft."
The latest incident -- the first major Iraqi defection by air -- reaffirms U.S. intelligence assessments that "at least there are people who are dissatisfied," observed the senior U.S. officer, who remarked that the deserters had been "helpful" in supplying military and political intelligence to U.S. and Saudi officials.
But he cautioned against drawing any broad conclusions about the Iraqi military's will to fight a punishing war against the U.S.-led coalition. "This doesn't necessarily paint a clear enough picture about morale to make a judgment," the officer said.
The Washington Times reported yesterday that a defector who commanded an Iraqi brigade told U.S. and Saudi military and intelligence officials recently that the Iraqi military was "very pessimistic" about the outcome of a war against the U.S.-led multinational forces.
CIA Director William H. Webster and several Middle East experts told the House Armed Services Committee last month that the immediate prospects were small that economic sanctions might arouse enough discontent and factionalism in the military to threaten Mr. Hussein or reverse the Iraqi president's grip on Kuwait.