The air war in the Persian Gulf widened yesterday as Iraq launched its first fighter attack over neighboring Saudi Arabia, // but the planes were shot down before they could reach their targets.
Two Iraqi F-1 Mirages, loaded with Exocet missiles and headed south along the Saudi coast, were intercepted by a Royal Saudi Air Force pilot flying an F-15, military officials said. A third Iraqi fighter, which escaped, fired an Exocet that landed harmlessly at sea.
With the war now in its eighth day, allied forces have apparently reclaimed their first tiny piece of Kuwait: U.S. naval forces drove Iraqi soldiers from Qaruh, a small island 25 miles out in the gulf used mainly for fishing, the allied command announced.
At least three Iraqis were killed and 51 taken prisoner in the skirmish, officials said. The raid took place Wednesday but was not confirmed until after being reported by the Kuwaiti news agency.
One U.S. and one British aircraft were reported yesterday as lost in separate incidents as allied warplanes took advantage of clearing skies to intensify their bombardment, particularly of Iraq's elite force of 150,000-plus Republican Guard troops. But there was no sign of movement as the Iraqi ground forces remained in fortified desert positions.
The U.S. Central Command in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said allied planes flew about 3,000 bombing missions yesterday.
In Washington, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater became the first administration spokesman to acknowledge that the gulf war could last months. Other U.S. officials have avoided predictions on the length of the fighting, in part out of concern that the public might lose patience if the war dragged on.
Iraq's official news agency taunted the allies for their strategy of attacking from the air, accusing the U.S.-led coalition of fearing a bloody ground battle.
"The enemy tried to avoid establishing any serious contact," the Iraqi News Agency said, "and preoccupied itself, for the benefit of public opinion, with bombing from high altitudes."
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was quoted as saying that it was "only a matter of time before the enemy becomes convinced it has done all it can and that the Iraqis are determined to confront it and triumph over it."
Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week that the U.S.-led forces "are in no hurry. We are not looking to have large numbers of casualties." U.S. officials also warned that most of Iraq's air force remained intact and that the Iraqis were capable of changing tactics to catch the coalition by surprise.
That prediction appeared to be supported by the incursion yesterday afternoon by a trio of Iraqi jets in what was believed to be Iraq's first air strike of the war. According to Saudi officials, four Saudi fighters were on a routine patrol about 80 miles away when an AWACS radar plane detected the Iraqi jets and sounded the alert.
Within minutes, two Mirage jets had been shot down by missiles from one of the Saudi F-15s. There were no signs of survivors.
"I just rolled in behind them and shot them down," said the pilot, Capt. Ayedh Shamran, 30. "It was easy."
"They started breaking [away] in front of me, but it was too late," he added. "You know the F-15 -- nobody can beat it."
Saudi officials said they believed it was the first time in the war that one pilot had downed two Iraqi aircraft.
Officials said they did not know if the Iraqi jets had intended to attack naval vessels in the gulf or a coastal installation, such as the large Saudi oil refinery at Ras Tannurah.
A third Iraqi jet, believed to be a Soviet-built MiG, launched its Exocet before escaping to the north, British officials said. The missile, capable of hitting targets up to 35 miles away, fell into the sea without causing any damage.
U.S. aircraft continue to shoulder the bulk of the air operations, flying nearly 85 percent of the 15,000 combat and support sorties to date.
U.S. aircraft losses rose to 10 with the downing yesterday of an F-16 by ground fire. The pilot ejected over the gulf and was rescued by a helicopter crew from the USS Nicholas. Fourteen U.S. airmen remain listed as missing in action, including as many as eight thought to be held prisoner by Iraq.
Baghdad radio broadcast interviews with three more men described as captured U.S. pilots, according to Western reports. They were identified as Col. David William Eberly; Lt. Lawrence Randolph Blake, 26, a carrier pilot; and Maj. Thomas Edward Griffith, 34, a navigator. Colonel Eberly and Major Griffith are among those listed as missing by the Pentagon.
Although the search for Scud missile launchers and the allied strategy of isolating the Iraqi army remained the focal points of the U.S. air campaign, there was scant information from the allied command yesterday about ground activity.