MANAMA, Bahrain -- Iraqi jets attacked four tankers anchored at an Iranian oil loading terminal today, setting them ablaze and leaving at least 18 crew members missing, shipping sources said. Hours earlier, Iran said its jets bombed Iraqi troop positions east of Baghdad.
The Seawise Giant supertanker, the world's largest operating vessel, was a 'total wreck' after being struck as it sat anchored to the Larak Island oil terminal with a full load of Iranian crude, shipping sources said.
The Iraqi jets evaded Iranian defenses and fired French-made Exocet missiles at the Liberian-registered supertanker as well as British, Spanish and Iranian ships, setting them ablaze.
Shipping sources said Iran's gunners remained silent and its air force failed to scramble to engage the Iraqi jets. One source said the jets attacked the ships as they lay anchored side-by-side 'like sitting ducks' at the terminal in the Strait of Hormuz -- the strategic mouth of the Persian Gulf.
They said at least 14 of the Seawise Giant's 50-member crew were missing after the raid, while 26 sailors were picked up by tug boats and were reported headed to the southern Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, they said.
Also missing were at least four sailors from the Spanish-flagged tanker Barcelona, which was reported 'sinking' after the raid.
Rescue tug boats risked attack to carry survivors -- many seriously injured -- from the scene of the raid to hospitals in Iran's nearby heavily defended southern port of Bandar Abbas, shipping sources said.
The sources said the attack on the Seawise Giant and the British-flagged, 457,841-ton supertanker Burmah Endeavour came seconds after strikes on the smaller tankers Barcelona and the Cypriot-registered tanker Argosy.
Shipping insurer Lloyd's said in London that blazes aboard the Seawise Giant and the Argosy were 'out of control,' and shippers said they saw 'billowing pillars of smoke and flames shoot up into the sky.'
'Air alert,' cried the skipper of the Seawise Giant before the deadly Iraqi missiles slammed into his vessel, 'turning it into a ball of fire,' one shipping source said.
The source said there were casualties among the crew but could not immediately provide numbers or their nationality. He said the Iraqi raid took place at noon (5 a.m. EDT).
In Baghdad, state-run radio and television interrupted normal programs to report the 'courageous' and 'precisely planned' operation in which a 'very large number of Iraqi jetfighters unleashed rockets' on 'giant oil tankers' at Larak.
An Iraqi military spokesman said the jets succeeded 'in surprising the enemy and violating his air defenses, attacking the tankers loaded with Iranian oil and setting them ablaze.'
There was no immediate reaction from Iran on the damaging raid.
A U.S. Central Command spokesman said there was 'no U.S. involvement' in Saturday's attacks, and that the U.S. Navy was not escorting reflagged Kuwaiti tankers through the Persian Gulf at the time.
'American warships carefully monitor all events in the gulf, and had full knowledge of the attack as it happened,' one U.S. source said. 'Once again, it looks like the Iranians were caught with their pants down.' Iran depends on oil exports to fund its nearly 8-year-old war with Iraq.
Before today's attack, Iraq claimed it had hit nine ships -- either Iranian-owned vessels or in Iranian service -- since April 29.
Early today, Iranian jets evaded Iraqi defenses to bomb troop positions east of Baghdad, Tehran Radio said.
The Iranian warplanes bombed Iraqi armored positions in four separate raids in the Zorbatiah area, about 95 miles east of Baghdad, and near the Iranian border town of Mehran, according to the radio report monitored in Athens.
The planes carried out the bombing runs during an 80-minute period early today and all 'returned safely to base,' the radio said. There was no immediate report on casualties.
The commander of an Iraqi elite guard corps, Gen. Iyad Al-Zawawi, meanwhile told the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas in a report published today his country would adopt a new policy of striking back for every Iranian attack in the countries' land war.
The guard corps played a major role in Iraq's surprise recapture last month of the Faw peninsula. The peninsula south of the Iraqi port of Basra last month was taken by Iran two years ago.
Also today, Lloyd's said 11 crewmen were injured in an Iraqi air attack this week on an Iranian cargo ship believed to be the MV Iran Hahad.
Lloyd's said the crewmen were injured when Iraqi jets attacked the Iranian ship with French-made Exocet missiles, hitting its accommodation quarters and igniting a fire. Lloyd's said the attack apparently took place Thursday.
Lloyd's said a Panamanian-registered tugboat towing the blazing vessel was damaged in a follow-up raid 13 hours later. Shipping sources said the tug, identified by Lloyd's as the Sea Sapphire, was damaged as it searched the sea for survivors of the attack.
Iraq says its attacks on Iranian vessels or neutral ships in Iranian service are intended to dry up Iranian oil export revenues which 'feed the Iranian war machine.'
There have been no reported Iranian attacks against neutral merchant mariners in the gulf, however, since the Reagan administration decided to extend last month naval protection to neutral shipping ploughing the volatile waterway.
An Iranian strike on a neutral ship outside pre-designated 'war zones' near the Iranian or Iraqi coasts would provide the first major test of the U.S. Navy's determination to defend neutral ships.