Weather frustrates air war BUSH ANGERED BY IRAQI HANDLING OF POWS Sorties by allies also face fierce fire from ground

January 22, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Allied airmen struggled against bad weather and defensive groundfire from Iraqi forces yesterday as the Persian Gulf war moved into its sixth day.

Early today Iraq sent at least one more Scud missile southward, and it was destroyed by a Patriot missile over Riyadh, witnesses in the Saudi capital said.

Another Scud missile was launched from southern Iraq yesterday, but the rocket fell harmlessly into the Persian Gulf short of Al Jubayl, north of Dhahran, the Pentagon said.

U.S. officials continued to give upbeat progress reports on the round-the-clock air operation, which they said was proceeding "more or less according to plan."

Meantime, Iraq claimed it had scattered prisoners of war at potential military targets around the country, a move that recalled its earlier use of civilian hostages as "human shields" before the fighting began.

The number of U.S. servicemen dead or missing since the war began grew to 14, and the Pentagon confirmed the capture of at least three U.S. airmen by Iraq.

One downed Navy pilot previously listed as missing in action was rescued from the Iraqi desert by an Air Force search-and-rescue mission, the Pentagon said.

The allied command in Saudi Arabia reported that a Navy F-14 Tomcat was downed by hostile groundfire yesterday, bringing to nine the number of U.S. warplanes downed by Iraq.

Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams cautioned, however, that military officials were now delaying the release of information about downed aircraft.

He indicated that the change in information policy was intended to prevent Iraq from gaining quick information about "kills" of allied aircraft.

More than 8,100 sorties have now been flown, the Pentagon said. That figure includes aircraft sent up to guide or protect allied warplanes, in addition to those dropping bombs or missiles on enemy targets. The Pentagon has refused to say how many bombing runs have been conducted or how many targets have been struck.

For the third day in a row, heavy cloud cover and fog covered the battle zone, frustrating efforts to assess the damage caused by the massive air assault.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said in a broadcast interview that the air campaign had been "slowed down a little bit" by the weather.

But he and other U.S. officials continued to describe the operation as successful.

Allied aircraft continued to deliver their bombs on 80 percent of their missions, the Pentagon reported.

"We knew the weather was going to be a problem this time of the year in that area of operations," Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly told a Pentagon briefing.

"It has not had an impact on the conduct of the campaign so far."

Better weather was forecast for today, according to the Pentagon.

For the first time, a senior U.S. official claimed that coalition forces had achieved air superiority over Iraq.

Mr. Cheney, in an interview yesterday on CNN, said the U.S.-led forces had "in effect" gained control of the skies over Iraq and occupied Kuwait.

However, Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries continued to throw up heavy, if indiscriminate, fire at attacking U.S. warplanes, returning pilots reported. Air Force Lt. Col. Greg Pepin told pool correspondents in Saudi Arabia that allied pilots were "looking at some of the most formidable air defenses ever encountered."

Congressional sources said the search for Iraq's remaining Scud missile launchers was being hampered by intensive anti-aircraft fire, which was forcing planes to fly at high altitudes, the Associated Press reported.

While allied forces intensified their efforts to eliminate Iraq's Scud missile threat, the Pentagon disclosed that Iraq was using decoys to frustrate the search for Scud launchers.

"They do use decoys and use them well," General Kelly told reporters. He called this "somewhat of a problem. I can't quantify it."

There was conflicting information on whether all of the fixed Scud launch sites had, in fact, been destroyed, as previously had been announced. Officials said they did not know how many mobile launchers remained intact but acknowledged that they remained a threat.

The inability to wipe out Iraq's Scud capability, and the fact that Iraqi television remained on the air over the weekend, raised new questions about the effectiveness of the allied bombing campaign.

Military sources noted, however, that Patriot anti-missile missiles had intercepted nearly all of the Scuds fired at targets in Saudi Arabia, and they described the Iraqi rockets as a terroristic threat rather than a strategic one.

Officials declined to be more specific about the extent of damage done by allied bombing to the Iraqi high command's ability to communicate with its forces in the field.

"Saddam Hussein or the command element . . . is still in control of military activity in the country," said Adm. Mike McConnell, director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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