Allied warplanes battered Iraq for a seventh day Wednesday, and two American soldiers were reported wounded in a clash with an Iraqi patrol just inside Saudi Arabia.
Six Iraqi soldiers were captured when a U.S. Army armored infantry unit exchanged fire with the Iraqi patrol, Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Scott told reporters Wednesday. He said the encounter occurred near the Saudi-Iraqi border during sporadic artillery fire.He said the wounded Americans were treated and returned to duty.
Asked specifically about reports that Americans were captured in a skirmish with Iraqi troops, Scott said, "I have no information on that."
There have been skirmishes and artillery duels at the border since the start of the Persian Gulf war, but the clash Tuesday night was the first one in which U.S. soldiers were wounded and Iraqis captured.
Scott's comments came after Iran's official news agency said Iraq had claimed its ground forces attacked allied forces in Saudi Arabia early Wednesday and captured allied soldiers. There was no independent confirmation of the Iranian report.
Also Wednesday, U.S. and British officials said they were eroding Saddam Hussein's ability to launch Scud missiles on Iraq's neighbors.
Although Pentagon official Pete Williams said it was impossible to destroy all Iraq's Scud missile launchers, British Maj. Gen. Alex Harley said Tuesday was a "particularly successful day" in the effort to knock out the launchers.
"Virtually all the main Iraqi military airfields have been damaged, with reduced capacity; the Iraqi air force has been harassed and forced to move from one place to another, with his (Saddam's) command and control gradually being degraded," Harley said in London.
"This leaves the skies largely free for the allied air effort," said Harley, the deputy director of operations of the British defense staff.
Williams told "CBS This Morning" that the Iraqi launchers had proved particularly elusive targets. "Finding the right Scud launcher is a little bit like finding one flatbed truck in all of Texas," he said. U.S. Patriot interceptor missiles failed to knock out Tuesday's Iraqi missile attack on the Tel Aviv area, but they turned back Iraqi Scuds zooming into eastern Saudi Arabia before dawn Wednesday.
Harley said the allied attacks have reduced Iraq's oil refining capacity by 50 percent.
Iraq trumpeted the Tel Aviv attack, saying its missiles have "the protection of God." Iraqi radio also said the strike against Israel was "for the sake of Palestine."
Saddam has repeatedly tried to link any settlement of the Persian Gulf conflict to an Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab lands - a formulation the United States has rejected.
A day earlier, Iraq had threatened to tie its treatment of prisoners of war to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In Saudi Arabia, the principal staging ground for the mighty allied war effort against Iraq, the early-morning skies Wednesday were hazy but clearing, and U.S. warplanes thundered off on more bombing runs.
Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency said allied warplanes Wednesday pounded the Iraqi port city of Basra - site of Iraq's military headquarters for the Kuwait theater - and the nearby Faw oil center. The agency said explosions could be heard in the Iranian city of Khorramshah, 25 miles away.
Four Kuwaiti bombers flew missions over their homeland Wednesday and struck Iraqi positions, Kuwait's news agency said.
Scott said Wednesday the allies have flown about 12,000 sorties since the war began. U.S. pilots flew 85 percent of those missions, he said. He said no U.S. planes were lost in combat in the past 24 hours.
Qatar flew its first combat missions of the war Tuesday, Scott said. He said pilots from the gulf state attacked Scud missile shelters in Kuwait.
Scott, like other U.S. military spokesmen, declined to provide a detailed assessment of the success of the attacks on Iraq, except to say that "Operation Desert Storm continues on track." Clouds have hampered the air war in recent days, but Scott said Wednesday's weather was "relatively clear."
Peter Arnett of Cable News Network reported Wednesday from Baghdad that despite the bombing, life in the Iraqi capital was regaining some semblance of normalcy.
Iraq suspends gasoline sales
However, Iraq's Oil Ministry, in an announcement read over the radio, said it was suspending sale of gasoline "for a short period" as of Wednesday.
Arnett, who was allowed to remain after other foreign reporters were ordered out of Baghdad, said he had not seen any areas where there were civilian casualties. Iraq claims civilians are dying in large numbers; the United States says it has been pinpointing strategic targets.
In Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir called an emergency meeting of key Cabinet ministers Wednesday to discuss Tuesday's Iraqi attack, the most damaging to date. Iraqi missiles hit Tel Aviv on Friday and Saturday, causing some damage but no deaths.
The Israeli Cabinet did not issue a statement after its meeting Wednesday.
Initial reports on Tuesday's attack on Tel Aviv said the Patriot missiles missed the incoming Scud. But Wednesday, Brig. Gen. Uri Ram, commander of Israel's air defenses, said a Patriot missile struck the Iraqi missile but failed to blow up its warhead.
70 injured in Scud attack
The warhead directly hit one apartment building and damaged about 20 others, wounding at least 70 people, Israeli officials said. Three people died of heart attacks.
The Patriots were deployed in Israel during the weekend as part of a U.S. effort to persuade Israel to stay out of the war. An Israeli attack on Iraq could dilute Arab support for the coalition against Iraq.
After the Iraqi attack, Defense Ministry spokesman Dan Naveh warned of retaliation but gave no hint of when it might come. "Israel will respond," he said.
The White House condemned the Iraqi attack and praised Israel's "remarkable restraint."
American military strategists, meanwhile, conceded that Iraq's store of offensive weaponry has been almost untouched by the allied bombing. Iraq has lost only a few of the 700 planes in its air force. Its 545,000-strong ground force, including the Republican Guard, remains firmly entrenched in Kuwait and southern Iraq.
The allies say they have lost 15 planes in combat, nine of them American. Thirteen American fliers are listed as missing in action. The U.S. military says 17 Iraqi planes have been destroyed in dogfights.
The bombing campaign has been hampered by bad weather, and officials say some of the damage inflicted by it has been quickly repaired.
Coup attempt reported
The Guardian newspaper in London reported that Iraqi security forces shot and killed two senior members of the ruling Baath party and five other Iraqis when they tried to occupy a Baghdad television center last week to broadcast calls for the overthrow of Saddam.
The Guardian, quoting exiled Shiite opposition leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, said the seven men had "planned to broadcast a message to the nation blaming President Saddam Hussein for starting another war and urging a general uprising."
The coup plotters were caught Friday after a power failure prevented them from broadcasting the message and were killed by Iraqi security forces, The Guardian said. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim would not identify the coup plotters by name.