DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- Officials waited yesterday for conclusive evidence of whether the bombing of an Iraqi-controlled oil terminal had succeeded in controlling the largest-ever oil spill now polluting the Persian Gulf.
Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. and allied forces in the gulf, said an F-111 dropped precision-guided bombs Saturday on the coastal facilities that pump oil to Kuwait's Sea Island supertanker station. The intent was to incapacitate them and choke off oil from storage facilities where valves apparently were opened deliberately by Iraq.
Saudi and U.S. officials gave estimates of the size of the slick that ranged up to 35 miles by 10 miles and suggested that oil also might be flowing from a second site. But they agreed that the spill threatens environmental disaster for every country bordering the gulf.
At a news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, General Schwarzkopf presented videotape showing a bomb dropping toward the section of the Sea Island complex controlling the flow of oil into pipelines stretching 13 miles from the Kuwaiti mainland to the offshore terminal for supertankers. Two sections, each performing the same function, were targeted.
Another videotape, taken after the bombing, showed a fire belching dense smoke, an oil-fed blaze that General Schwarzkopf said was likely to burn for at least 24 hours.
The blaze is likely to provide the best evidence of whether the mission succeeded. If the flames diminish, it will signal a diminished flow of oil.
"I am certainly not an expert, and I am not guaranteeing anybody that this fire is going to go out," General Schwarzkopf said. "I think we've been successful, but only time will tell."
He blamed the oil spill on Iraq, which in turn has blamed it on U.S. attacks on an Iraqi oil tanker. But commanders reviewed U.S. military operations in the area and found "absolutely no indication at all" that U.S. actions had caused the spill, the general said.
For the United States, the decision to bomb the terminal highlighted one of the dilemmas of the war: whether Iraqi forces can be pushed out of Kuwait without most or all of Kuwait's infrastructure being destroyed by one side or the other.
The greatest peril is to Kuwait's oil industry, the source of the country's enormous wealth. Iraq has threatened to destroy Kuwait's oil fields, and intensive allied artillery and air bombardments presumably are damaging the fields.
"We are not in the business of destroying Kuwait while we are liberating Kuwait," General Schwarzkopf said in explaining why the bulk of the oil terminal was left intact. "And we certainly didn't want to go in and completely destroy the oil field and do undue damage."
Saudi officials expressed some uncertainty about the source of the oil pouring into the gulf, suggesting that it might be coming from at least two sites.
The officials said that oil already washing ashore might have come from storage tanks in Khafji, Saudi Arabia, just south of the border with Kuwait.
The officials attributed oil leaks there to damage caused by Iraqi artillery in the first hours of the war. They said the larger, more threatening slick from Kuwait had yet to go ashore but threatened to affect wildlife and the shoreline for years to come.
"It's apparent that Saddam Hussein is not waging war only on the resources of this generation but on the resources of future generations," said Abdullah Al-Gain, director of Saudi Arabia's environmental agency.
A U.S. Navy pilot who flew over the area described the sea as a "golden slick" being broken into patches and steadily pushed south by 30 mph winds.
Echoing previous statements by the Pentagon, General Schwarzkopf said the oil spill has not affected allied military plans. "It's certainly not something that's going to impede the progress of the operation," he said. "And I don't think it's going to bring pressure to do anything different from what we're doing right now."
Before the news conference, however, some commanders sounded less certain. An admiral in charge of a U.S. Navy battle group expressed concern that sailing in oil-fouled waters might hamper warships' ability to produce fresh water or have unforeseen effects on mechanical systems.
"I suppose he might have thought it would interfere [with] our ability to move close to his coast and to operate against his Republican Guards in Kuwait with gunfire support and amphibious landings," said Rear Adm. Dave Frost, head of the battle group led by the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. "We do not have a lot of experience operating in oily waters."
Saudi Arabia's main concern was with the effects the spills might have on the kingdom's vital desalination plants, which provide fresh water for hundreds of thousands of soldiers and for Saudi cities and power plants.
In Jubail, 160 miles south of Kuwait, the site of the largest of the desalination plants, workers began to deploy floating booms designed to keep oil away from the plant's submerged intake pipe. The plant converts up to 200 million gallons of salt water a day into drinking water, much of which is sent by pipeline to Riyadh.
Workers at another plant in Al Khobar, a suburb of Dhahran, are to install booms today.
"I think this is the only measure we can take," said Salman Al-Bossary, manager of the plant, which produces up to 50 million gallons a day of fresh water for use in seven cities.
"The last measure -- and I hope we are not going to take it -- is to shut down the plant."
Mr. Al-Bossary said the kingdom usually stores a two-day supply of fresh water and, in emergencies, can meet demand from backup wells. "There is well water all over the Eastern Province," he said. "Of course, the quality will be a different, a little bit salty."
Considerable confusion remained about the size and movements of the slicks. As a result, there was also confusion about whether, when or where more oil might come ashore and what effects it might have.
At news conferences in Dhahran and Riyadh, Saudi officials gave sketchy and sometimes contradictory information about the spill. Inquiries were being hampered because they were taking place in wartime, they said.
Saudis also seemed surprised initially that the spill got as much attention as the combat between Iraq and the U.S.-led coalition. After recognizing that the spill was considered part of the war, they blamed environmental damage solely on Iraq.
In Riyadh, Mr. Al-Gain said the main oil slick measured 13 miles by 3 miles but that the size was changing because of wind and currents.
In Dhahran, Abdul Aziz Al-Hokail, a senior vice president of Saudi Aramco, the kingdom's oil exploration and production company, said the slick measured 30 miles by 8 miles and remained two to three miles offshore.
General Schwarzkopf said the slick was 35 miles long and 10 miles wide. Some of the oil was burned off, as the Saudis wanted, when the allies fired on an Iraqi patrol boat near the Kuwaiti terminal and accidentally ignited the oil, he said.
Mr. Al-Hokail said the shore damage already observed resulted from the spill at Khafji, which produced a slick measuring two miles by 100 to 200 yards.
Whatever the ultimate size of the spills, Mr. Al-Hokail said, they already exceed the worst possibilities for which local specialists had prepared. He predicted that cleanup efforts would be necessary "for years."
Environmental experts, including those sent by the White House, face unusual problems. The oil remains within range of Iraqi artillery, making it unacceptably hazardous for crews to try to skim it from the water's surface.
When the United States wanted to stop the flow of Kuwaiti oil into the Persian Gulf, it bombed two mazes of pipes and valves that regulate the flow of oil entering pipelines to nearby loading docks.
Known as manifolds, they are a much more complicated version of an automobile's exhaust manifold, a series of pipes that collects exhausts from engine cylinders and channels them into a tailpipe.
At an oil storage site, the manifold merges the flow of oil from pipes from several storage tanks into one or two output pipelines, explained George M. Jardim, a Chevron Corp. official.
By opening and closing the valves for different pipes, technicians can choose which tanks are to be tapped and at what pace.
Other pipes at the manifold direct oil pumped to the storage site from wells into the different tanks.
A videotape shown by the U.S. military at a news briefing in Saudi Arabia appeared to show that the storage tanks and manifold were surrounded by a rectangular dike at each of the two sites bombed. Mr. Jardim said that such dikes were typically built high enough to contain at least as much oil as the largest tank at the site holds.