WASHINGTON -- An Air Force B-52 bomber and two Marine helicopters crashed over the weekend, leaving six servicemen dead and three missing, as the U.S. military confirmed that seven of last week's Marine deaths had resulted from "friendly fire."
As allied forces passed the 41,000-sortie mark and enjoyed what officials claimed was air and naval supremacy, the Pentagon was approaching the point, according to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin, D-Wis., of being able to gauge when and whether a ground attack should begin and how long the war would last.
The military blamed mechanical failure for the crash yesterday of the B-52 bomber, which fell into the Indian Ocean en route to its base on the island of Diego Garcia. Of the six crew members aboard, three were rescued and three were declared missing in action, bringing to 27 the number of Americans reported missing since the war started.
B-52s have been pounding Iraqi fortifications in and near Kuwait in an effort to inflict as much damage as possible before an allied ground assault.
The last time a B-52 was lost was Dec. 6, 1989, when one of the giant bombers crashed on the runway at K. I. Sawyer Air Force Base, near Marquette, Mich., during a training mission, the Air Force reported.
In the first of the two helicopter crashes, a Marine AH-1 Cobra went down during an escort mission late Saturday in Saudi Arabia, killing its two crewmen, Maj. Gen. Robert B. Johnston said during a briefing at Central Command headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Military officials reported later that a UH-1 Huey helicopter crashed at an undisclosed location early yesterday in Saudi Arabia, killing all four Marine crew members.
The two incidents brought to 30 the number of confirmed American deaths in the war.
The seven Marines killed by "friendly fire" died when a missile struck their vehicle as it fought off about 50 Iraqi tanks and personnel carriers while trying to protect the withdrawal of a Marine reconnaissance patrol Tuesday at the Saudi border, General Johnston said.
During "very intense, very close combat," the Marine vehicle was struck by what apparently was a Maverick missile, he said. "We have every reason to conclude that it was, in fact, a friendly missile."
The Associated Press said the Maverick was fired by a U.S. warplane, rather than allied aircraft, but the Pentagon did not confirm that.
The military also said that its investigation into a second possible "friendly fire" incident, involving the deaths of four U.S. servicemen, determined that an Iraqi shell had hit their vehicle.
General Johnston said the military was still investigating another incident in which one Marine died and two others were wounded but said that "it would appear reasonable to expect that that, too, could have been friendly fire."
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, meanwhile, came close to disavowing part of a joint U.S.-Soviet communique issued by the State Department last week, vowing that military action would continue until Iraq had withdrawn totally from Kuwait and suggesting that diplomatic moves to end the war right now would be inappropriate.
The communique said that "a cessation of hostilities would be possible if Iraq would make an unequivocal commitment to withdraw from Kuwait," backed up by "immediate, concrete steps leading to full compliance with the [U.N.] Security Council resolutions."
The White House said the next day that "massive withdrawal" would have to be under way before fighting could stop. The State Department said Friday that retreating Iraqis would not be shot in the back.
Mr. Cheney, appearing on ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley," said that "we are not interested in a promise or a pledge or a commitment to withdraw from Kuwait -- we're interested in him [Saddam Hussein] getting out of Kuwait."
Asked whether that meant total withdrawal, he said: "It does indeed."
In an interview the day before, Mr. Cheney said the United States and its allies could maintain a naval blockade even if Iraq withdrew from Kuwait to prevent Mr. Hussein from rebuilding his military stockpiles.
Meanwhile, General Johnston said U.S. aircraft were attacking Scud launch sites as soon as missiles were fired, "making life rather difficult for the Scud launch teams." The planes, which fly over Iraq to watch for missile flashes and then attack the targets, hit two sites Saturday night after they fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia, officials said.
General Johnston said "indications are" that one of the Scuds fired Saturday night might have landed in Jordan. A Jordanian official denied that his country had been hit.
The relentless air campaign to break up Iraqi supply lines and "soften up" the hundreds of thousands of heavily dug-in troops in and near Kuwait has succeeded in destroying or damaging 25 to 35 major bridges, the U.S. command said.
With convoys backed up, the Iraqis now are using secondary roads and pontoon bridges, creating new targets, General Johnston said.
Representative Aspin, interviewed on NBC's "Meet the Press," said that, by the middle of this week, the United States would have a better idea of how Iraq's elite Republican Guard troops were holding up against the pounding from the air.
He said the odds of avoiding a ground war were "pretty small."
Mr. Aspin said that the goal of "getting rid of Saddam Hussein" was creeping into U.S. war aims and that the cost in time and casualties this posed "is going to be very, very large."