DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- Officials waited yesterday for conclusive evidence of whether the bombing of an Iraqi-controlled oil terminal had succeeded in controlling the largest-ever oil spill now polluting the Persian Gulf.
Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. and allied forces in the gulf, said an F-111 dropped precision-guided bombs Saturday on the coastal facilities that pump oil to Kuwait's Sea Island supertanker station. The intent was to incapacitate them and choke off oil from storage facilities where valves apparently were opened deliberately by Iraq.
Saudi and U.S. officials gave estimates of the size of the slick that ranged up to 35 miles by 10 miles and suggested that oil also might be flowing from a second site. But they agreed that the spill threatens environmental disaster for every country bordering the gulf.
At a news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, General Schwarzkopf presented videotape showing a bomb dropping toward the section of the Sea Island complex controlling the flow of oil into pipelines stretching 13 miles from the Kuwaiti mainland to the offshore terminal for supertankers. Two sections, each performing the same function, were targeted.
Another videotape, taken after the bombing, showed a fire belching dense smoke, an oil-fed blaze that General Schwarzkopf said was likely to burn for at least 24 hours.
The blaze is likely to provide the best evidence of whether the mission succeeded. If the flames diminish, it will signal a diminished flow of oil.
"I am certainly not an expert, and I am not guaranteeing anybody that this fire is going to go out," General Schwarzkopf said. "I think we've been successful, but only time will tell."
He blamed the oil spill on Iraq, which in turn has blamed it on U.S. attacks on an Iraqi oil tanker. But commanders reviewed U.S. military operations in the area and found "absolutely no indication at all" that U.S. actions had caused the spill, the general said.
For the United States, the decision to bomb the terminal highlighted one of the dilemmas of the war: whether Iraqi forces can be pushed out of Kuwait without most or all of Kuwait's infrastructure being destroyed by one side or the other.
The greatest peril is to Kuwait's oil industry, the source of the country's enormous wealth. Iraq has threatened to destroy Kuwait's oil fields, and intensive allied artillery and air bombardments presumably are damaging the fields.
"We are not in the business of destroying Kuwait while we are liberating Kuwait," General Schwarzkopf said in explaining why the bulk of the oil terminal was left intact. "And we certainly didn't want to go in and completely destroy the oil field and do undue damage."
Saudi officials expressed some uncertainty about the source of the oil pouring into the gulf, suggesting that it might be coming from at least two sites.
The officials said that oil already washing ashore might have come from storage tanks in Khafji, Saudi Arabia, just south of the border with Kuwait.
The officials attributed oil leaks there to damage caused by Iraqi artillery in the first hours of the war. They said the larger, more threatening slick from Kuwait had yet to go ashore but threatened to affect wildlife and the shoreline for years to come.
"It's apparent that Saddam Hussein is not waging war only on the resources of this generation but on the resources of future generations," said Abdullah Al-Gain, director of Saudi Arabia's environmental agency.
A U.S. Navy pilot who flew over the area described the sea as a "golden slick" being broken into patches and steadily pushed south by 30 mph winds.
Echoing previous statements by the Pentagon, General Schwarzkopf said the oil spill has not affected allied military plans. "It's certainly not something that's going to impede the progress of the operation," he said. "And I don't think it's going to bring pressure to do anything different from what we're doing right now."
Before the news conference, however, some commanders sounded less certain. An admiral in charge of a U.S. Navy battle group expressed concern that sailing in oil-fouled waters might hamper warships' ability to produce fresh water or have unforeseen effects on mechanical systems.
"I suppose he might have thought it would interfere [with] our ability to move close to his coast and to operate against his Republican Guards in Kuwait with gunfire support and amphibious landings," said Rear Adm. Dave Frost, head of the battle group led by the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. "We do not have a lot of experience operating in oily waters."
Saudi Arabia's main concern was with the effects the spills might have on the kingdom's vital desalination plants, which provide fresh water for hundreds of thousands of soldiers and for Saudi cities and power plants.