DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia — In a dramatic bid to check a gush of oil into Persian Gulf waters, U.S. warplanes swept into Kuwait and dropped precision glider bombs on two inland pipeline devices that direct crude toward the offshore Sea Island loading station, U.S. military officials said Sunday.
They said it would take a full day to determine whether the nighttime raid by F-111 fighter-bombers on key parts of Kuwait's premier oil facility was successful.
"I think that we've been successful, but only time will tell," Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of allied forces in the Persian Gulf, told reporters in Riyadh.
U.S. officials have accused Iraq of releasing millions of barrels of Kuwaiti crude into the gulf, draining moored oil tankers and opening an offshore pipeline. Baghdad claims the oil spill is the result of U.S.-led bombing raids on Kuwait.
Oil was said to be surging into the gulf at a rate of more than 1.2 million barrels a day--more than four times the amount discharged during the entire Exxon Valdez oil disaster.
By Sunday, the slow-moving slick had widened to at least 350 square miles and crept into Saudi Arabian waters off Ras al Mishab, about 30 miles south of the Kuwaiti border. Winds kept most of it two to three miles offshore, and a decidedly uphill effort was under way to lessen the impact on the gulf's already fragile marine life.
"It is apparent that Saddam Hussein has chosen not only to threaten and destroy the resources of this generation, but also the resources of the future generation," said Abdulbar Gain, president of Saudi Arabia's Meteorology and Environmental Protection Agency. "An oil spill of this magnitude is completely unimaginable. It is catastrophic in terms of the possible damage it might cause."
Schwarzkopf said U.S. intelligence detected the spill last Thursday, observing first that five tankers moored at the Kuwaiti oil complex of Al Ahmadi were conspicuously lighter in the water, and then that a black patch was moving from an offshore buoy at the Sea Island supertanker loading terminal, located about eight miles offshore.
Hasty briefings with military and oil experts followed, and U.S. officials were counseled to attack the spill in two ways: Set fire to the source, the Sea Island terminal, to burn off any crude moving through its tanks and pipes, and launch an air strike designed to halt the flow of new oil toward the gulf facility.
Oil consultants had advised that the flow out of storage tanks at Al Ahmadi, from which the pipeline stemmed, could be checked by bombing a pair of manifolds at a facility about five miles inland. Oil-field pipes feed into the manifolds, which then move the crude under pressure into the storage tanks, Schwarzkopf said. Bombing the manifolds thus would deprive the system of any fresh crude.
The first step was accomplished Friday night through what apparently was a piece of military serendipity. A small Iraqi patrol boat confronted a U.S. Navy ship near the offshore facility. The Navy ship opened fire and, in the process--Schwarzkopf called it a "circumstantial happening"--the Sea Island terminal was set ablaze.
The second step began at 10:30 p.m. Saturday with the commencement of the F-111 attack. The warplanes unleashed a pair of GBU-15 guided precision munitions that slammed precisely into both manifolds, according to indications from video cameras mounted in the noses of the weapons.
Schwarzkopf said the attack met with no opposing fire from Iraqi troops.
Videotape of a fire on the oil buoy near the source of the spill showed that after the attack what had been billowing clouds of black smoke had lightened to gray, and that the flames were dwindling. Schwarzkopf said that the pictures may indicate that oil still in the pipeline before the attack is burning itself out.
He said it would take about 24 hours for the oil in 13 miles of pipeline between Sea Island and the inland manifolds to burn out, he said. If the fire is still burning after that, he said, U.S. officials will know their mission had failed.
"We're not going to know anything for at least 24 hours," Schwarzkopf said. "Hopefully, we'll then see a great diminishment. If not, we'll go back to the engineers and see if there's anything else we can do."
Schwarzkopf said the slick is 35 miles long and 10 miles wide, but U.S. pilots flying over the area said it stretched at least 50 miles long and 20 miles wide.
He said that U.S. military and environmental consultants had given wide-ranging and sometimes conflicting advice about likely damage from the oil spill, and he stressed that the military remains committed to limiting further damage to Kuwaiti oil facilities.
"We're not in the business of destroying Kuwait while we're liberating Kuwait," he said.