On the gulf's newest war front, the U.S.-led allies searched for a way Saturday to halt the colossal "black tide" drifting toward Saudi water plants. Some of the oil spill was ablaze, but a military spokesman said, "A solution is close."

High above, in sunny skies, allied bombers kept up a furious bombardment of Iraqi positions in Kuwait and southern Iraq, described by returning pilots as a devastated landscape of shattered bridges and fires beyond number.The U.S. command said Desert Storm aircraft shot down three Iraqi warplanes in the latest air-to-air action.

Along the northern front lines, Iraqi forces and troops of the U.S.-led coalition exchanged harassing fire.

The gigantic oil spill at the head of the Persian Gulf, first reported Friday as 10 miles long, was washing up Saturday on Saudi beaches 70 miles away.

The allies said the Iraqis on Tuesday had opened the valves at the main Kuwaiti supertanker loading station, 10 miles offshore from the Al-Ahmadi refinery complex, and also fed the spill from five loaded tanker ships.

The spill's volume was not precisely calculated, but the U.S. military said the tankers held about 125 million gallons, and specialists said the terminal can pump out more than 100 million gallons a day.

A small part of the slick and a nearby terminal were ablaze Saturday, Saudi military sources said. But Pentagon officials later reported the fire was burning down.

The Iraqis' objective was unclear. Drifting oil could present difficulties, probably surmountable, to an allied amphibious landing in Kuwait. But if the Iraqis somehow manage to ignite the crude - a task experts say would be extremely difficult - the military problem could be much more serious.

The Iraqis also might intend to fill the skies with a black smokescreen to confound allied fliers and to foul the intake water at the desalination plants that provide much of Saudi Arabia's potable water.

Whatever the motive, the drifting oil was already devastating the northern gulf's environment. Cormorants and other seabirds coated with oil were dying on Saudi beaches. Environmentalists expressed fears for the dolphins, turtles and other marine life that thrive in the gulf's warm waters.

The allies cannot "allow these hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil to keep pouring out into the gulf. So a solution is close," a British military spokesman, air force Group Capt. Niall Irving, told reporters in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

In Washington, Pentagon officers said an air attack - presumably to knock out the pumps dumping oil into the sea - was one option. The White House announced it was sending an inter-agency group of environmental and other specialists to try to contain the spill damage.

At Jubail, 160 miles south of the terminal, oil booms were being floated into position to protect a large plant that converts saltwater to drinking water for Riyadh and for hundreds of thousands of allied troops.

Clear skies apparently enabled the Desert Storm air arm to mount a full day of bombing strikes, zeroing in on military-support targets in southern Iraq and Kuwait.

Returning pilots reported knocking out an airfield and hitting two railroad bridges in southern Iraq, said Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Scott, a U.S. command spokesman. He said one F-4G Wild Weasel pilot reported back: "There are more fires down there than I can count."

The fires may have been both allied hits and oil fires set deliberately by the Iraqis.

In Iraq, CNN correspondent Peter Arnett was taken to the Muslim holy city of Najaf, where he saw bomb craters and more than a dozen houses flattened by what Iraqi authorities said were air raids. Arnett, one of the last Western correspondents in Iraq, was told at least 20 people had been killed.

The U.S. military says it is targeting strictly military and other strategic sites, although it acknowledges that civilians might be unintended victims. Later Saturday, the Pentagon specifically denied it had targeted any religious sites.

Bombers continued hammering away at the dug-in positions in southern Iraq of the Republican Guard, elite core of the defense of Kuwait. Scott said pilots - some 200 miles away - reported seeing a huge fireball Friday after a bombing run on the Guard.

The U.S. command also said Air Force F-15s had shot down three Iraqi MiG-23s over Iraq, according to a preliminary report.

A Baghdad military communique claimed air defenders shot down two more allied warplanes, bringing Iraq's total claimed "kills" to 180. The allies, dismissing such claims as wild exaggerations, have reported the loss of only 17 planes in combat, including 10 American. Scott reported no new allied losses.

American and allied pilots also pressed their search for Iraqi missile launchers, which fired fresh barrages of Scuds at Saudi Arabia and Israel on Saturday. All were intercepted by U.S. Patriot defense missiles.