WASHINGTON -- In an unprecedented effort to avert a wider Mideast war, the United States rushed anti-missile batteries to Israel yesterday as allied warplanes continued to search the Iraqi desert for the elusive Scud missile launchers.
With the Persian Gulf war now in its fourth day, allied warplanes' heavy bombardment of military targets continued throughout Iraq and occupied Kuwait. U.S. casualties grew to nine missing or presumed dead, officials said.
Military leaders confirmed that the allied air campaign had begun to shift south. The new phase, designed to weaken Iraqi troops in advance of a possible ground attack, was aimed at the more than half-million Iraqi soldiers dug in to the desert of southern Iraq and Kuwait.
The U.S. Central Command in Saudi Arabia said that allied forces captured 12 Iraqi soldiers in a battle off the coast of Kuwait. The Iraqis had been firing on allied aircraft with artillery and shoulder-held missiles from Kuwaiti oil-drilling platforms in the northern Persian Gulf.
The guided-missile frigate USS Nicholas, along with U.S. Army helicopters and a Kuwaiti patrol boat, "engaged and neutralized" the Iraqi forces Friday night, according to a brief statement. No U.S. casualties were reported.
Five Iraqis were killed and four wounded in the incident, according to Marines at a U.S. installation in northeast Saudi Arabia where the prisoners were taken for interrogation, a pool correspondent reported.
U.S. officials continued to deny Iraqi claims that U.S. fliers had been captured. But the Bush administration warned Iraq to provide humane treatment of prisoners of war.
An Iraqi diplomat in Washington was summoned to the State Department to receive a diplomatic note stating that the United States was abiding by its obligations under the Geneva Convention and that it expected Iraq to do the same.
Meanwhile, several blocks away, a crowd of anti-war protesters, estimated by police at 25,000, rallied in Lafayette Square, directly across from the White House. In San Francisco, the crowd was estimated at 50,000, making it the largest U.S. peace demonstration since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August but still considerably smaller than similar rallies overseas.
President Bush was spending the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend at his Camp David retreat. He met there with senior advisers to review the progress of the war and the U.S. effort to prevent Israel from being drawn into the fighting.
Mr. Bush issued instructions sending Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger back to Israel late yesterday. White House spokesman Bill Harlow said the purpose was "to discuss the situation there, particularly in light of the Scud missile attacks."
Throughout the day, allied aircraft continued to comb the western Iraqi desert for the trucks used to launch Scud missiles, and military officials said Iraq's ability to mount additional strikes was being reduced.
But Defense Secretary Dick Cheney acknowledged that the Soviet-made rockets remained "a threat."
"We're doing everything we can to find and destroy the Scud launchers, but it's a problem we obviously have to try and overcome," Mr. Cheney told reporters.
Marine Maj. Gen. Robert Johnston, chief of staff of the U.S. Central Command in the gulf, told reporters at a briefing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that Iraq began the war with more than 50 Scud sites, including more than 20 mobile launchers. The fact that Iraq had gone from firing eight Scuds Friday to three yesterday meant the allied search-and-destroy campaign was working, he said.
But the likelihood of further missile attacks on Israel, and the danger that Israel would be brought into the war, prompted U.S. officials to take the "extraordinary step" of flying batteries of anti-missile missiles to Israel from U.S. installations in Europe, a Pentagon spokesman said.
The shipment arrived yesterday, accompanied by U.S. crews to man the sophisticated devices. The advanced Patriot missiles are the same type successfully used early Friday by U.S. forces to shoot down a Scud missile headed for the allied airfield at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
Israel's request for U.S. protection, which came in the wake of the Iraqi strike on Tel Aviv, put U.S. troops on wartime duty inside the Jewish state for the first time. Historically, Israel has stubbornly refused to accept outside assistance and has taken great pride in its ability to defend itself from Arab attacks.
Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams cautioned that the Patriots were not a "foolproof defense."
He refused to say whether Israel had earlier rejected a U.S. offer to deploy U.S.-manned Patriots. Israel has purchased a less sophisticated version of the Patriot system, but Israeli soldiers have not yet been fully trained to operate it.