Iraq sets Kuwaiti oil fields afire, digs in defenses WAR IN THE GULF

January 23, 1991|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Sun Staff Correspondent

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- Iraq sabotaged Kuwaiti oil fields yesterday and repositioned its front-line defenses in anticipation a U.S.-led ground assault, U.S. and Arab military officials said.

Iraq also continued to rain Scud missiles on Saudi Arabia, attacking this eastern city as well as the Saudi capital, Riyadh, repeatedly. The attacks included the first-ever daylight raid on this country during the war, when three Scuds were fired toward Dhahran after sunrise.

As with previous attacks, all the modified Soviet-made missiles were shot down by U.S. Patriot air defense missiles or crashed into the desert or the Persian Gulf.

No one was reported injured by the Scud attacks, although a large smoldering piece of an exploded rocket fell onto a street in Riyadh and damaged property. Arab authorities said they were trying to determine whether the debris came from a Scud or from a Patriot.

"Iraq has thus far scored a big zero in any effective use of Scuds," said Col. Ahmed Al-Rubayan, a spokesman for the Joint Arab Forces. The announcement was made before reports of the Iraqistrike on Tel Aviv that left three people dead and up to 70 injured.

With no sign that the Scud missile threat will be eliminated soon, U.S. military officials announced that they would not intercept errant Iraqi missiles headed for the water or an unpopulated area. While the policy is aimed at having Patriot missiles used only when necessary, the officials insisted there were plenty on hand to meet the threat.

Both U.S. and Saudi military officials confirmed reports that circulated through world oil markets yesterday that Iraqi forces began setting off explosives and fires at oil fields and oil storage facilities in Kuwait.

"Some aerial photos indicate they are on fire," Colonel Al-Rubayan said. He and other military officials declined to name all the locations affected.

But one site was identified by U.S. Army Lt. Col. Greg Pepin as the Wafra oil field, located less than 50 kilometers from the Kuwait-Saudi border. Oil wells and storage tanks at the field were set ablaze early yesterday.

"Obviously if there's heavy smoke, it'll affect our operations," Colonel Pepin said.

At the Pentagon, Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, head of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there had been "no effect" on the military offensive against Iraq. He and other officials also said they were uncertain of Iraq's motives in setting the fires.

Iraq had threatened to burn the Kuwaiti facilities for months, and some Western analysts saw it as a part of a plan to leave Kuwait in ruins if forced to relinquish it.

U.S. military officials said Iraq also may have been trying to throw up a smoke screen to hinder U.S. and allied pilots who were trying to score direct hits on Iraqi strongholds in Kuwait.

Colonel Pepin said the destruction of the oil fields was no accident. "It was set on fire and was burning early today," he said.

As a defensive tactic, Iraq already has deep anti-tank trenches along the border, filled with flammable liquids or rigged to oil lines. The trenches could be ignited to try to block or disrupt an allied armored advance.

According to reports from the U.S. front lines, Iraqi tanks are moving short distances to new defensive positions.

Army Col. Johnnie Hitt of Wills Point, Texas, told a news media combat pool that the tanks "have moved from one prepared position to another" where they are able to dig in and survive aerial attacks.

In a separate interview, a U.S. Marine Corps ground commander said military intelligence had found "increased movement back and forth from the border" that suggested preparations to meet an allied ground offensive.

"Discounting enemy ability is just wishful thinking," Col. Ron Richard of the Marine 2nd Division told reporters. "He still has a lot of firepower and a lot of willingness to use it.

"This is not an enemy that is going to go easy," he said.

An allied commander, Maj. Gen. Rupert Smith of Britain's 1st Armored Division, said allied forces were prepared to wait as long as two months before launching a ground attack because more time was needed for air bombardments and aerial assaults to soften Iraqi defenses.

U.S. Army Apache helicopter pilots gave this reason why a longer air war may be warranted: There is a belief that much of Iraq's fleet of some 130 attack helicopters may have survived initial phases of the air war.

Iraqi helicopters "were not a priority," said Lt. Col. Terry Branham of Wayzata, Minn., an Apache squadron commander.

Iraq's main offensive action so far -- the ballistic missile attacks -- included a predawn firing yesterday of two Scuds at Riyadh, the daylight raid here and another attack in the evening, with as many as four Iraqi missiles, according to military reports.

The attacks kept pressure on U.S. pilots, who have been trying to mount aggressive search-and-destroy missions to find Iraq's mobile missile launchers. Although the cloud cover over Iraq dissipated after lingering for several days, the weather showed little improvement over Kuwait.

"We all realize that we need to keep things under a fair amount of control," said Capt. Rick Henson of Forrest City, Ark., an F-15E weapons system officer on missions to destroy mobile Scud launchers.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.