WASHINGTON -- At least 60 of Iraq's best fighter jets have streaked to safety in neighboring Iran, a development that is prompting concern among U.S. military strategists, officials said yesterday.
Amid growing signs that the flights are part of President Saddam Hussein's war strategy, Pentagon officials confirmed that more than 80, and possibly more than 100, top-of-the-line Iraqi fighters and transport planes have been granted sanctuary in Iran.
Iran, which claims neutrality in the war, has said it will impound the warplanes until the conflict ends. But skeptical U.S. officials believe the jets may only be sheltered temporarily and then re-enter the fighting later, perhaps after an allied ground offensive begins.
"Clearly, we're concerned about this whole evolution. We're watching it very, very carefully," said Navy Capt. David Herrington, deputy director for intelligence of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The U.S. command also kept close tabs yesterday on a spreading oil slick that now covers more than 350 square miles of the Persian Gulf.
Defense Department officials estimated that only a "minimal" amount of additional crude, if any, was flowing into the sea two days after an allied bombing raid on a pumping station in Kuwait.
Oil from the spill, which allied commanders say was created by Iraq to interfere with an amphibious assault, is being swept to the south and east by sea currents at about 15 miles a day.
The Pentagon now says none of the oil slick, the largest in history, has yet reached the coast of Saudi Arabia. Oil that washed up on the shoreline last week was the result of Iraqi shelling of a Saudi refinery at the start of the war, U.S. officials have concluded.
In Washington, President Bush told a religious broadcasters' convention that the conflict embodies "good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, human dignity and freedom vs. tyranny and oppression."
Mr. Bush said the war "is not a Christian war or Muslim war. It is a just war. It is a war [in] which good will prevail."
Clear skies over Iraq and Kuwait permitted allied warplanes to fly more than 2,500 combat and support missions yesterday, one of the heaviest daily totals of the war, now in its 13th day.
Iraqi ground troops in southern Iraq and Kuwait were struck again. For the first time, the Pentagon reported "small indications" that "some" Iraqi units have been forced from their fortified positions because of heavy pounding by U.S. bombers.
Four more Iraqi jets were shot down yesterday, bringing the total downed in air combat to 26. At least 24 more have been destroyed on the ground, officials said.
But a growing number of Iraq's most advanced planes are now leaving the battle zone and being granted sanctuary in Iran, officials said.
Since Iran announced last Saturday that seven Iraqi warplanes had been given permission to land at an Iranian airfield, the number of flights has continued to multiply. The Iraqi pilots had earlier been described as defectors, but it seems increasingly likely that their journeys into Iran are part of some larger plan.
At least some of the escaping planes have been taking off in squadrons and were given aerial protection by other Iraqi jets until they crossed the border, an indication that the flights could be part of a coordinated plan rather than the actions of frightened or disloyal pilots, a Pentagon official said.
As the day progressed and the number of Iraqi flights continued to grow, the tone of official statements appeared to shift markedly.
"We are delighted to see [the flights to Iran] because every one of those aircraft that leaves Iraq is one less that we will have to engage in combat," Army Brig. Gen. Pat Stevens IV, deputy director for logistics of the U.S. Central Command, told reporters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, yesterday.
At a Pentagon briefing six hours later, however, official boasts over the prospect of an Iraqi air force fleeing allied interceptors was tempered by the acknowledgment that Iran might well have struck a deal with its former enemy to safeguard Iraq's most advanced aircraft until a later stage of the war.
"It may pose a threat. It may not pose a threat. That's still a subject of discussion," said Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, director for operations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
A Pentagon spokesman, Pete Williams, said allied aircraft might intensify their efforts to patrol the Iraq-Iran border in an effort to block future escape flights, but officials refused to confirm publicly what steps would be taken.
U.S. officials say they accept "at face value" Iran's claim that it will remain neutral and confiscate the Iraqi planes until the war ends. But the same officials emphasize they are prepared to counter any air strikes launched by Iraq from Iranian airfields.