DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia — Is the U.S. Patriot antimissile system working even better than advertised?
The air defense system apparently performed flawlessly late Sunday, knocking down eight Iraqi Scud missiles fired at Dhahran and Riyadh. A Patriot also destroyed a Scud streaking toward Dhahran early Friday.
Civilian and military sources indicate that Patriots also destroyed Iraqi missiles aimed at Saudi refinery and port facilities. But those apparent successes were not reported, possibly because of Saudi war jitters.
"I'm aware of an incident like that but I'm not going to talk to you about it," said a Saudi official from the area where the reported missile attack took place.
But according to a British officer, the two unreported Scud intercepts were made by Patriots at a Persian Gulf port used as a major military staging area. The port is not far from a large Saudi oil refinery at Ras Tannurah.
The officer said the action took place early Friday, about the time the first Scud was shot down over Dhahran. He was told about it at an intelligence briefing the next day.
"A cheer went up," said the officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Your Patriots are all we have to stop these things," he said. "It's nice to know they work."
A U.S. Army spokesman said he had no information about those reported Patriot firings.
The Saudi government has tried to portray life in the oil-rich Eastern province as normal despite the war. It hopes to prevent civilian panic and discourage an exodus of American and other foreign workers vital to its oil industries.
It would be impossible to hide Patriot firing at Dhahran because dozens of journalists live and work at a hotel just off the air base. But the port area where the British officer reported the Patriot firings is isolated from most of the media.
Richard Gardner, an American who works for the Saudi-owned Aramco oil company and lives near its Ras Tannurah refinery, said he and other residents were awakened about 3:30 a.m. Friday by what sounded like two booms.
"I thought it was the sonic boom of a jet because there was a roar and it sort of faded into the background," he said. Gardner said friends who live near the port heard explosions in the air.
There was also a peculiar occurrence involving Patriots in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
The official Saudi Press Agency issued an unusual statement saying a source in the joint American-Saudi command had told it that two Riyadh-based Patriots had been accidentally fired because of a technical error. It was unclear why a Saudi agency would issue a statement about an American weapons system.
The Patriot, made by Raytheon Co., is a radar-guided system mounted in a rectangular-shaped box that swivels on its mount.
When fired, the missiles explode from their launchers with a sonic boom and race across the sky toward incoming targets.
After Iraq lobbed two volleys of Scuds into Israel last week, the United States rushed Patriot batteries from Europe to its staunch Mideast ally. U.S. Army crews are manning those missiles.