RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — French warplanes screamed into Iraq for the first time Thursday in a stepped-up air assault on the elite Republican Guard, and allied troops liberated the first chunk of Kuwait--a tiny island in the Persian Gulf.
The decision to attack Iraq, made personally by French President Francois Mitterrand in reply to criticism that France was waging a half-hearted war, loosed Jaguar fighter-bombers against mechanized units of the Republican Guard. The guard took some of their heaviest pounding so far at allied hands.
"We are hitting them with all our assets," said Army Lt. Col. Greg Pepin, the spokesman for American forces. U.S. pilots and military commanders said bombs and missiles inflicted heavy damage on the Republican Guard, the backbone of Iraqi military strength, but they could not provide casualty figures.
While the liberation of the island of Qaruh, 22 miles off the shore of Kuwait, had only limited military value, it was of great psychological significance to Kuwaitis. The island is so small that it has no permanent residents and is often under water. A Kuwaiti spokesman, Hasan Abdul-Aziz, called it "a bird sanctuary."
But he added, "It is the first piece of land liberated from the Iraqis."
Qaruh fell during a U.S. Navy assault that killed three Iraqis, sank an Iraqi minesweeper and took 51 Iraqis prisoner, military officials reported. They said another minesweeper tried to flee--and exploded and sank when it apparently hit a mine.
In the eighth day of the Persian Gulf War, there were these additional developments:
A U.S. Marine battery, heavily outnumbered and under nagging fire along the Kuwaiti border, struck back with a daring hit-and-run artillery raid--the latest in a series of conflicts sputtering along the Saudi border as the air war raged overhead.
A Saudi pilot shot down two Iraqi jet fighters, reportedly loaded with bombs and Exocet missiles and headed for the gulf, where American ships are stationed. It was the first report of an Iraqi attempt to enter Saudi airspace--and the first dogfight of the war to end in a double kill.
Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Martin L. Brandtner told reporters at the Pentagon that the United States does not plan "at this time" to use chemical weapons to retaliate against any Iraqi chemical attack on allied troops. But he was interrupted by Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams, who said America refuses to rule out a chemical counterattack.
The French decision to send planes into Iraq was announced in Paris, where Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement suggested over the weekend that French military operations might be limited to targets in Kuwait. Mitterrand's conservative opponents responded that French fliers seemed to be waging a half-hearted war alongside their U.S. and British counterparts.
They accused Mitterrand of hedging his bets to limit damage to ties with the Arab world. France was Iraq's principal Western arms supplier during the 1980s, when Iraq was at war with Iran.
Mitterrand called the criticism "insulting" and said Sunday: "Wait and see how things evolve before making pejorative judgments." Then, on Thursday, his chief military spokesman, Gen. Raymond Germanos, announced that the French president had decided on a "new phase" in operations.
Jaguar fighter-bombers based in Saudi Arabia hit mechanized units of the Republican Guard in southern Iraq, Germanos said. In a simultaneous attack, he said, Jaguars struck Iraqi artillery positions in Kuwait under the cover of French Mirage 2000s. Another French spokesman, Col. Jacques Rolland, said the French planes came under significant antiaircraft fire, but all returned safely.
The French attack on the Republican Guard came as the allies stepped up their assault on guard positions, dug in deeply in the desert. U.S. bomber pilots reported a panorama of devastation in the region of southern Iraq and northern Kuwait where Republican Guard units have undergone days of heavy aerial bombardment.
"There's a lot of blown-up stuff on the ground up there right now," said Maj. Bobby Jernigan, an F-16A pilot who led an air strike that targeted artillery concentrations, tanks and division headquarters of the elite military unit.
"You can see the spots where B-52s came through, because B-52s carry a lot of bombs, and there is a big, long swath of craters," Jernigan said. "There are areas of the earth that are just blackened circles that are 500 feet by 200 or 300 feet. That is probably where some cluster bombs went off and covered an area."
Asked how he thought the Republican Guard units were holding up, Jernigan said simply: "Badly. Badly. . . . Everywhere you see stuff that looks like it would be a lucrative target, it looks like it's been hit."
Capt. Jeff Gurney, another F-16 pilot who hit the units, described the Republican Guard as "a monstrously big army. Basically, when you hit the ground, you're going to get the army someplace."