WASHINGTON — In an urgent effort to keep Israel from plunging into the Persian Gulf War, the United States on Saturday dispatched American soldiers and two Patriot missile batteries to Israel to stand guard against any new Iraqi missile attacks.
Israeli leaders, reversing their longstanding public insistence on military self-reliance, requested the U.S. assistance after Iraq fired 10 Scud missiles toward Israel in two separate attacks, causing a number of injuries and extensive property damage but no fatalities.
The Bush Administration's decision to provide the advanced surface-to-air missiles and the personnel to operate them appeared to forestall an immediate Israeli retaliatory attack, a development that could splinter the Arab-Western coalition opposing Iraq. It also marked the first time that U.S. combat troops have been assigned to duty in Israel.
The effort to bolster Israel's anti-missile defenses came as U.S. and allied warplanes continued to scour Iraq and Kuwait for elusive Scud mobile missile launchers and escalated their bombardment campaign against Iraqi ground troops and their logistic support sites.
Iraq's elite Republican Guard, considered the most capable of President Saddam Hussein's troops, came under heavy fire in their positions in southern Iraq and northern Kuwait, while U.S. B-52 bombers began attacking Iraqi defenses farther south. Pentagon officials said American and allied pilots had flown 4,700 sorties during the first three days of the conflict. A total of 216 Tomahawk cruise missiles had been fired from U.S. warships at targets in Iraq and Kuwait.
Meanwhile, the first Iraqi prisoners of war were taken by the allied coalition. In a joint operation off the coast of Kuwait, American and Kuwaiti forces captured 12 Iraqi soldiers who had been using oil platforms to fire antiaircraft guns at allied aircraft.
The U.S. frigate Nicholas, in conjunction with a Kuwaiti patrol boat, captured the 12 Iraqis on nine platforms, U.S. officials said. Saudi Arabia, as the host country for the allied forces, is expected to care for all prisoners of war taken in the conflict.
U.S. Marines also engaged in minor skirmishes with Iraqi troops on the Kuwaiti border, prompting air strikes against positions north of the border that reportedly killed at least 40 Iraqis.
Two Marines were also wounded Saturday by Iraqi shelling along the border.
The intensive air war claimed three more U.S. warplanes Saturday, bringing to six the number of American planes lost so far. The Pentagon lists nine U.S. airmen as missing, one of whom earlier had been declared dead. One of the planes lost Saturday, an F-4G Wild Weasel fighter, was downed by engine failure, the Pentagon said, while the others were shot down.
The two Air Force crewmen on the F-4G safely ejected and parachuted onto Saudi soil, where they were picked up and returned to base, Pentagon officials said.
Two of the missing U.S. airmen are Lt. Col. Clifford Acree, 39, and Chief Warrant Officer Guy Hunter, 46, both Marines from Camp Pendleton who were flying a military reconnaissance plane while directing fire against Iraqi targets in Kuwait.
Three other members of the allied coalition also have lost aircraft: Two British Tornado fighter bombers with two-man crews are missing, along with an Italian Tornado and its two-man crew and a Kuwaiti A-4 jet and its pilot.
U.S. officials said that allied pilots have downed a total of 10 Iraqi aircraft in a series of aerial dogfights. While most of Iraq's 700-plane air force remains intact, Pentagon officials declared they had achieved near-mastery of the skies over Kuwait and Iraq.
"We have the capability to gain and maintain air superiority in any sector of Iraq in which we wish to operate," said Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Kelly, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Their air defense system is no longer successful in major portions of the country."
The White House said that Operation Desert Storm has achieved "a fairly complete success" in knocking out Iraqi air defenses. "There have obviously been major disruptions" in Iraqi command and control operations, said White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney authorized the military services to call an additional 170,750 National Guard and reserve troops to active duty in the Persian Gulf conflict. It was the first indication of how many reservists could be mobilized to replace combat casualties if a large-scale ground offensive began exacting a heavy toll.
To date, the Pentagon has called 161,887 citizen-soldiers to active duty in Operation Desert Storm, bringing the war home to thousands of communities around the nation and causing significant economic disruptions to families and employers.