WASHINGTON -- Millions of gallons of crude oil gushed unrestrained into Persian Gulf waters yesterday, while, not far away, high-flying allied bombers dumped tons of explosives on Iraqi troop positions in the desert.
Hopes for a quick solution to the environmental disaster appeared to be fading. Officials gave no indication of when, or even whether, allied military forces would soon undertake a mission to stanch the flow, now in its fourth day.
"A solution is close," a British air force officer told reporters in Saudi Arabia. But he added: "It is going to take a great deal of thought and a great deal of care to ensure that we get it right, because I think there will only be one chance at it."
Amid reports that Iraq's air force was continuing to avoid combat with allied aircraft, U.S. officials confirmed that more than two dozen of Iraq's most advanced fighters and transport planes have landed in neighboring Iran in recent days. They offered no explanation.
"Whether it was prearranged or whether it was defection or whether it was an opportunity to put them in a safe haven, we don't know the answer to that just yet," said Rear Adm. Mike McConnell, director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Intelligence reports indicate that the planes include both military and civilian craft, as well as at least a dozen of Iraq's fighter aircraft. U.S. officials expect the flights into Iran to continue.
Iran has declared itself neutral in the war, and Tehran authorities insisted yesterday that they would seize any aircraft of either side that landed on Iranian territory.
During the eight-year Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Iraqi aircraft were granted sanctuary in neighboring Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as a means of protecting them from hostile fire. Military officials refused to rule out the possibility that Iraq was pursuing a similar strategy this time, with the cooperation of its former enemy.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III said that the United States contacted Iran to make sure the planes would be prevented from returning to Iraq. The Iranians assured him that the planes would not return and that their country would remain "totally neutral," Mr. Baker said.
Mr. Baker also announced that Saudi Arabia had promised to give $13.5 billion toward U.S. costs of the war for this year, bringing total allied pledges for 1991 to $36 billion.
As the Persian Gulf conflict entered its 11th day, Iraq launched at least two new barrages of Scud missiles against Israel and another at Saudi Arabia. At least three rockets were fired into Haifa and one into Tel Aviv, officials said.
The Saudi capital, Riyadh, was struck by debris from an incoming Scud that was intercepted by a U.S. Patriot defense missile. There were no immediate reports of casualties from the latest Scud attacks.
U.S. Marines staged what was described as the largest allied artillery attack of the war early yesterday, hitting Iraqi positions about 27 miles southwest of Kuwait City, about six miles from the Saudi border.
Three Marines were killed and two injured in a vehicle accident related to the attack, according to combat correspondents. Their names have not yet been released.
Nearly 20,000 combat and support missions have been flown by allied aircraft since the war began, and the number of reported allied casualties remains extremely low.
U.S. forces, which have flown about 85 percent of all sorties, list only 14 fliers missing in action; at least six of those are believed held prisoner in Iraq, along with a seventh American who has not yet been reported as missing.
A "big, significant" reason for the success enjoyed by U.S. fliers was cooperation from Soviet officials in pre-invasion planning, according to an Air Force general.
NB Knight-Ridder News Service, which quoted the general, reported
that the chief intelligence directorate of the Soviet military, the GRU, provided the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies with numerous details of Iraq's military capabilities. That enabled U.S. and allied fighter pilots to counter Iraqi air defenses by adjusting the electronic countermeasures aboard their aircraft, disrupting the ability of Iraqi radars to detect allied air attacks.
jTC Information on Iraqi casualties, both civilian and military, has been difficult to obtain. Former Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. said on CNN's "Newsmaker Saturday" program that an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 civilian casualties in Iraq have been caused by allied air strikes. He did not say where the information had come from.
A Kurdish organization estimated Friday that about 10,000 Iraqi soldiers had been killed or wounded. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said he "wouldn't be surprised" if that number were correct, "given the effort that we've mounted."
"I would expect there have been a large number of casualties," he said Friday on PBS television's "MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour."