WASHINGTON -- Triggering perhaps the largest oil spill in history, Iraq has deliberately released a possible 200 million gallons or more of crude into the Persian Gulf in an apparent effort to foil an allied amphibious invasion, officials said yesterday.
The floating mass of thick, unrefined oil is pouring from a Kuwaiti offshore oil terminal and five Iraqi tankers in a nearby port. The slick was spreading south and had fouled the Saudi coastline at least 50 miles away, according to the Pentagon.
"Saddam Hussein . . . clearly is outraging the world," President Bush said at a White House news conference. "I can assure you that every effort will be made to try to stop this continuing spill."
Rain and overcast skies over the battle zone hindered the allied air campaign yesterday. Before bad weather moved back in, the U.S.-led coalition flew a total of 2,707 bombing runs and support sorties Thursday, the highest total of the war.
Iraq took advantage of the cloud cover to launch a fresh round of Scud missile attacks against Israel and Saudi Arabia. Missiles hit the Tel Aviv and Haifa areas in Israel, killing one person and wounding 69. In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a Scud missile struck a building, leaving one person dead and 30 injured, the Interior Ministry said.
It was the first death attributed to a Scud attack on Saudi Arabia.
In Israel, officials said seven Scuds were hit by Patriot anti-missile missiles, but not all the incoming rockets were stopped. U.S. officials announced that additional U.S. Patriot batteries had been sent to Israel from Europe to provide more protection for populated areas.
The Pentagon denied reports that some officials were concerned that a prolonged war could make it difficult to replenish supplies of the computerized weapon. At its plant in Massachusetts, Raytheon Co. was reported to have added shifts in an effort to double production of Patriots to 100 a month.
In Saudi Arabia and Washington, administration officials, military planners, oil industry experts and environmental scientists grappled feverishly with the task of containing the gulf oil spill, which may have begun as early as Tuesday, about the time Iraq set Kuwaiti oil fields ablaze, a Saudi official said.
Military sources said the oil would have no impact on Navy warshipsnow operating in the gulf but could severely complicate a Marine amphibious assault. While it lasts, it could restrict choices of landing beaches and could foul the mechanisms of tracked vehicles, tanks and amphibious craft.
The oil may be dispersed by the time of any Marine landings, the sources said. If not, it could restrict landing areas along the southern Kuwait coast and help Iraq focus its defenses. Marines might have to rely entirely on their helicopters and air-cushion landing vehicles to assault oil-covered beaches and direct larger landing craft to clearer beaches north of the spill.
The oil could have its greatest effect on flat-bottom amphibious craft trying to move through the goo. On the beaches, oil sand could get into the treads and mechanisms of tanks and amphibious tracked vehicles. Thus the amount of coastline available for assault operations would be reduced until the "sea of oil" was gone, the sources said.
Terming it "an act of environmental terrorism," Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said the slick became "worrisome" Thursday when "a huge amount" of crude began to pour into the gulf from Kuwait's Sea Island offshore terminal, about 10 miles out to sea. Five tankers, filled with Iraqi crude and docked in the Kuwaiti termnal of Al-Ahmadi in October, also were dumping oil into the gulf, he said.
Estimates on the size of the spill, which he cautioned might be inaccurate, were "on the order of several million barrels" of oil, Mr. Williams said, or "more than a dozen times bigger" than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in March 1989. Each barrel of oil contains 42 gallons.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters that "the most obvious purpose" behind the spill was to "make it difficult for amphibious landing craft" to reach the shores of occupied Kuwait from gulf waters. Coalition forces have been conducting exercises for a possible invasion described as the largest since the U.S. landing at Inchon, South Korea, in 1950.
Military officials, who said they had expected Iraq might dump oil into the gulf, expressed confidence that they would be able to work around the problem with little difficulty. They likened the spill to Iraq's use of Scud missiles, calling it a terrorist act rather than a military one.
But like the Scud threat, the spill was forcing allied forces to divert time, and possibly resources, from their war plan.