WASHINGTON -- The U.S.-led coalition staged thousands more bombing raids over Iraq and Kuwait yesterday as preparations for a ground assault appeared to near a final phase.
New skirmishes also broke out in the propaganda war between Iraq and the allied forces. The Iraqis claimed that 130 civilians had been killed when bombs aimed at a bridge outside Baghdad went astray, and U.S. officials countered with a charge that Iraqis have sometimes faked scenes of war damage for the benefit of reporters.
The month-old Persian Gulf war progressed without pausing for diplomatic maneuvers.
Two U.S. pilots flying A-10 Thunderbolts were shot down by Iraqi fire over northwest Kuwait yesterday and are now among the 30 listed as missing in action. A third U.S. pilot was killed when his F-16C attack plane crashed for unknown reasons in northern Saudi Arabia after returning from a combat mission, U.S. military officials said.
That brings the official combat death toll for Americans to 14 since the war began Jan. 17.
Another U.S. pilot operating in western Iraq pummeled an Iraqi helicopter with 30mm cannon fire and sent it crashing to the ground before destroying it with additional firepower.
Allied air efforts proceeded with an increasingly intense campaign to prepare the potential battlefield for a ground offensive by striking at bridges, roads and railways, communications lines, Iraqi tanks and artillery, and the hardened bunkers of the Iraqi Republican Guards.
Meanwhile, U.S. Army forces patrolling the Kuwaiti border with Saudi Arabia launched an artillery, rocket and helicopter attack on an Iraqi encampment that resulted in the destruction of several vehicles, observation posts and a bunker. The attack failed to draw return fire.
The Iraqis did open fire, however, in the continuing propaganda war that has accompanied the military engagement.
Iraqi authorities took reporters yesterday to inspect a site outside Baghdad where they claimed 130 civilians were killed Thursday in an attack by British warplanes that demolished an apartment building and a market in the town of Al Falluja.
The Iraqis said British Tornado jet fighters, aiming at two strategic bridges over the Euphrates River, demolished one but also hit a nearby multistory building and the market. They claimed that the 130 victims were mainly tenants of the apartment building, who were buried in the wreckage.
Seventy-either others, mostly shoppers and vendors, were hospitalized as a result of the bombing, Iraqi officials said.
The British confirmed that they had attacked bridges in the Falluja area but could not immediately say whether they were operating over the city Thursday.
"It's not impossible that there would be collateral damage . . . harm to civilian homes and people," Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly said at the Pentagon yesterday afternoon. "We hope that that's not the case. . . . What we can tell you right now is that we don't know."
When pressed on whether the Iraqis could have faked the damage that was shown to reporters and photographers, Rear Adm. Mike McConnell said that Iraq has done such things before.
"We saw them earlier in the process [war] inflict some damage on a specific building and then allow media access, when we are absolutely certain that that damage was not inflicted by coalition forces," said Admiral McConnell, a Navy intelligence expert.
Pentagon officials said after yesterday's briefing that Iraq deliberately blew up a mosque in the southern city of Basra to make it appear that allied planes had bombed it.
The incident occurred about a week ago, and reporters were taken to the scene soon afterward, said one official.
Another official said that the Iraqis placed explosives in the mosque and blew it up. They then made it look as though the explosives had been dropped from the air, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Pentagon said it might release proof of its allegations Tuesday.
The charges and countercharges came just days after Iraq scored a major propaganda victory last week when it reported that U.S. bombers killed hundreds of sleeping civilians in a Baghdad air raid shelter that allied forces insist was actually a command-and-control bunker.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has turned increasingly to other forms of warfare against the United States and its coalition partners as his military machine has begun to disintegrate.
Further evidence of that disintegration came yesterday as three more Iraqi Scud missiles were fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia -- with virtually no effect. Two Scud missiles landed in remote parts of southern Israel late yesterday, resulting in no casualties or damage, Israeli officials said. Another Scud, fired earlier in the day at the Saudi Arabian port city of Jubail, apparently broke apart in midair, scattering debris mostly in the Arabian Sea, military officials said. No attempt was made to shoot it down with a Patriot missile.
But as Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz prepared to head to Moscow for another round of peace negotiations tomorrow with the Soviets, there was no sign that Iraqi forces were preparing to withdraw from Kuwait as President Bush and the allies have insisted they must.
U.S. military commanders indicated yesterday they would continue waging the war according to plan until ordered otherwise by Mr. Bush.
They also said that there would be no pause in the warfare to allow Mr. Aziz safe passage to Moscow.
"It's a side show," Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said of the Aziz trip. "They don't have to send Tariq Aziz to Moscow to figure out how to stop the war. They know how to do it. . . . They're either going to withdraw from Kuwait or we're going to drive them out."