WASHINGTON -- U.S. fighter jets blocked Iraq's aerial escape route to Iran for the first time yesterday, shooting down at least two Iraqi fighters attempting to flee the war, military officials said.
Elsewhere in the air war, heavy allied bombing of Iraq's deeply dug-in ground troops and their supply lines continued yesterday, as the Persian Gulf war entered its fourth week.
Only scattered ground action was reported, including small probing forays by Iraqi troops near the Saudi-Kuwaiti border. Allied forces turned back two Iraqi patrol boats and sank a third in what appeared to have been an attempt to re-enter Khafji, the Saudi border town occupied briefly by Iraqi forces last week.
Iraqi authorities, meantime, reported that 150 civilians, including 35 children, were killed in an allied bomb attack on An Nasiriya, a southern Iraqi town located on a major highway linking Baghdad and Kuwait. Eyewitnesses arriving in Baghdad reported that allied bombs had hit military and industrial targets during an intensive bombardment, the Associated Press reported.
U.S. officials said they could provide no immediate information on the bombing, which may have involved an attack on a nearby Iraqi oil refinery.
Allied fighters and heavy bombers also struck again at the almost 150,000 Republican Guard troops hiding in bunkers near the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border.
"We're out there to destroy the Republican Guard," Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal said at a briefing yesterday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
U.S. officials had no comment on a statement by the commander of French forces in the gulf, Gen. Michel Roquejeoffre, that allied air strikes had reduced the guards' effectiveness by about 30 percent.
But they took issue with a far less rosy assessment indicating that weeks of aerial pounding of Republican Guard positions had done little to weaken the combat strength of Iraq's most potent army divisions.
"There has been damage done to the Republican Guard," Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly told a Pentagon briefing. "We would like to see more damage done to the Republican Guard, and that's why we're continuing the bombing campaign."
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are to fly to Saudi Arabia today for talks with allied commanders. The extent of damage inflicted thus far on Iraq's armored divisions, and especially the Republican Guard, is expected to be a major topic of discussion, as President Bush nears a decision on whether -- and when -- to stage a ground assault.
Bush administration officials appeared this week to have begun preparing the American public for a ground invasion, which is likely to be far more costly, especially in American lives, than the air war.
In a broadcast interview, gulf commander Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf said, "What worries me most about the enemy is that they have demonstrated that they put absolutely no value on human life, theirs or their enemy's, and so they fight without conscience.
"It's sort of the mad dog syndrome," he said.
"We would like to think that when we're dealing with a dangerous situation that there's a predictability there, but in a mad dog there is no predictability.
"They are capable of the most heinous acts, and that worries me."
Allied aircraft have made almost 50,000 bombing and support flights into Iraq and Kuwait during the first 21 days of the war, officials reported yesterday.
More than 650 separate attack sorties were made yesterday against convoys and Iraqi positions in Kuwait. The military reported that a U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcat downed an Iraqi helicopter flying near the Saudi border.
But the most dramatic action took place hundreds of miles away, in the sky over Iraq's frontier with Iran, where U.S. Air Force pilots shot down two Iraqi Su-25 attack planes and may have downed two MiG-21s as well. The pilots, patrolling east of Baghdad, said they spotted the four Iraqi fighters on their radar screens from about 60 miles away.
They pulled their F-15s to within about seven miles and fired air-to-air missiles.
"It was just the most spectacular thing I have ever seen," said one of the pilots, a 26-year-old first lieutenant from Cincinnati, who asked not to be identified. His fellow F-15 pilot is a 30-year-old captain from King of Prussia, Pa.
"Our mission is to prevent these jets from leaving the Iraqi theater, and that's what we did," the younger pilot said. "They were eastbound, obviously heading toward Iran, and we were able to push it up enough to go ahead and cut them off before they were able to make it.
"We do think, however, they knew that they were under attack from indications we had on our radar," he said. "It appears that they were just trying to accelerate and outrun us . . . as if they were trying to beat us to the border."
It was the first reported shooting down of Iraqi jets trying to escape to Iran, a neutral country that has said it will impound the aircraft until the war ends. A total of 33 Iraqi jets have now been shot down in air-to-air combat; no U.S. planes have been lost in dogfights, U.S. officials say.
U.S. officials had played down the importance of the flights and speculated that the Iraqi planes, including their most advanced fighters, apparently have been taken out of the war to avoid being destroyed by the allied air campaign.
A total of 120 Iraqi planes, including 95 advanced fighters and 25 transport planes, are now in Iran. As many as 20 may have escaped this week alone, an increase of 10 from the figure announced Tuesday.
The revised total for the number of Iraqi planes came after officers examined data collected by AWACS planes and found evidence for a larger number of low-altitude flights.
"They're going in right on the trees, or the sand, I should say," an officer said. The two planes shot down yesterday were flying as low as 100 feet above the ground, the attacking U.S. pilots reported.