WASHINGTON -- As allied troop strength in the Persian Gulf passed the 700,000 mark yesterday, U.S. officials reported their largest "kill" of Iraqi armor of the war.
Marine AV-8B Harrier attack jets surprised an Iraqi armored column crossing the Kuwaiti desert late Monday, destroying 24 tanks, armored personnel carriers and supply vehicles, combat correspondents reported.
"They were sloppy, and they were caught," said Col. Ron Richard, spokesman for the Marines' 2nd Division. "It was the first hard kill we've gotten on a big target."
The nighttime strike, which produced flames that could be seen from Marine positions south of the Saudi-Kuwaiti border, came as allied forces intensified artillery and air attacks in the area.
Officials said a Marine reconnaissance team spotted the Iraqi column moving to a new position. The movement appeared routine and did not seem to signal an impending Iraqi attack, they said.
With the gulf war entering its third week tonight, the number of U.S. military personnel in the region is approaching the half-million mark. More than 490,000 servicemen and women have now been deployed, according to the Pentagon, and thousands more are on the way.
The U.S. buildup is rapidly approaching the peak troop strength of the Vietnam War years -- 543,400 in April 1969. It took more than three years of escalation to reach that point; the gulf buildup got under way less than six months ago.
Since fighting began, more than 70,000 additional U.S. troops have landed in the gulf region, according to Pentagon figures. Regular U.S. Army, Air Force, Marine, Navy and Coast Guard units have been bolstered by more than 200,000 reservists and guardsmen summoned to active duty since August.
Only last month, military officials said total U.S. troop strength would top out at 430,000, a figure similar to those disclosed by administration sources in November. But the numbers have continued to increase, with a significant portion of those called to duty since the war began made up of medical specialists and air ambulance teams.
Officials will not say how high U.S. troop strength could go. President Bush gave the Pentagon authority last week to call up as many as 160,000 additional reservists and guardsmen, although it was unclear how many would be activated.
Allied casualties in the fighting have been light, although medical teams near the front lines of the battle zone were told to prepare for 10 percent casualties in the first 30 days of a ground war, combat correspondents have reported.
Eight U.S. fliers, eight British airmen and one Italian serviceman are listed as missing in action. Eleven others, including seven Americans, are classified as prisoners of war. More than 100 U.S. deaths in the gulf region have been reported since August, all attributed to non-combat causes.
Iraq said yesterday that one of the allied prisoners it was holding as a "human shield" had been killed in an allied bombing raid in Baghdad. The name of the alleged victim was not given, and Pentagon spokesmen said they could provide no information.
Meantime, Iraq continued to fly more of its aircraft into Iran yesterday, U.S. officials reported. They indicated, however, that the number of aircraft escaping into Iran appeared to have slowed.
About 90 Iraqi fighter jets and military and civilian transports are now in Iran, an increase of fewer than 10 over the past 24 hours, officials said. Iran, which claims neutrality in the war, vowed again yesterday to impound the aircraft until the fighting ends.
U.S. commanders said they didn't know for sure whether the planes were out of the war for good.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney called it "a major sign of weakness in the Iraqi position."
"These aircraft have elected not to fight," said Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He attributed the flights to allied success in destroying hardened hangars where Iraq had been attempting to shelter its warplanes. In addition to those flown to Iran, Iraq has moved other aircraft away from airfields, into forests or onto highways, officials said.
U.S. officials reported that an Iraqi MiG-23 was shot down yesterday, bringing total Iraqi losses in air-to-air combat to 23. Eighteen allied planes have been lost in combat, 11 of them American, though no new losses were reported yesterday by the allies.
The Pentagon said the oil spill in the Persian Gulf was now at least 60 miles long and 20 miles wide and was continuing to move southeast. Navy Capt. David Herrington, deputy director for intelligence of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said no more oil was flowing from the offshore loading terminal that poured hundreds of millions of gallons into the gulf.