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Jets Roar Off in Darkness at Start of 'Desert Storm'

By Guy Gugliotta and Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 17, 1991; Page A01

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 17—The thunder of jet afterburners shook the ground at air bases around this country in the early morning darkness today as waves of U.S. and allied warplanes launched a massive air attack against Iraq, hitting targets in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country.

Nearly 17 hours after President Saddam Hussein ignored a United Nations deadline for his forces to withdraw from occupied Kuwait, a squadron of F-15E fighter bombers took off from an air base in central Saudi Arabia at 12:50 a.m. (4:50 p.m. EST), in the first military action of Operation Desert Storm.

"This is history in the making," Col. Ray Davies, 44, from Battlebrook, N.J., told reporters. "We've been waiting here for five months now. Now, we finally got to do what we were sent here to do," he said, as he watched American pilots man their aircraft, taxi down the runway and take off.

Airmen walked across the concrete in pairs to waiting planes that were armed and ready to go. Each plane has a crew of two -- the pilot in front and the weapons officer in the back.

The jets took off in pairs and disappeared in red dots as they gained altitude. "It is absolutely awesome," said Davies, the base chief maintenance officer. "I mean, the ground shook. You felt it."

The aircraft were heavily loaded with bombs and fuel tanks under their wings for the long trip north to Baghdad. About 20 minutes later, U.S. KC-135 refueling planes took off from Riyadh, the Saudi capital. British news reports said Royal Air Force Tornado GR1 fighter-bombers had joined the air assault. Saudi sources said 150 Saudi aircraft took part.

"Our planes went in. The bombs went down. There has been no reaction from the Iraqi side," said a Saudi military spokesman in Dhahran. The first Iraqi targets were the SCUD missiles, according to military officials in Dhahran.

Air raid sirens sounded in Riyadh and Dhahran, where U.S. military officials ordered reporters to don gas masks and take refuge in bomb shelters. However, there was no sign of Iraqi missile attacks on Saudi Arabia. Some reports said five Iraqi SCUD missiles were fired at Saudi Arabia.

Reached by telephone in the industrial city of Jubail, on the coast north of Dhahran, Bonnie Oliver, wife of the manager of the Shell-Petromin Refinery, said they had air raid warnings but nothing happend, and all workers were called in to the refinery to keep making jet fuel. She said Jubail and the nearby port of old Jubail are "just about deserted" because they have been evacuated.

In Dhahran, the Associated Press reported, the air raid sirens sounded after a sudden blackout.

The hotel staff at the Dhahran International Hotel, some in a near-panic, herded 700 reporters and hotel guests into the hotel basement. Hotel officials struggled to keep order and one security officer shouted, "Sit down or you will be tried!"

Immediately afterward, at 3:50 a.m., a hotel security officer issued a gas "all-clear," indicating it was safe to remove gas masks. He warned guests, however: "You should be aware that the early stages of an offensive is the most likely time for an attack" on Dhahran.

Asked about the beginning of the U.S.-led campaign to liberate Kuwait, invaded and occupied by Iraq Aug. 2, the Kuwaiti minister of planning, Suleiman Mutawa, said in a telephone interview from Jiddah: "I feel elated, but still worried because you never know what consequences there are going to be for people all over the place."

The commander of Desert Storm, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, said shortly after combat operations had begun: "This morning . . . we launched Operation Desert Storm, an offensive campaign that will enforce U.N. resolutions that Iraq must cease its rape and pillage of its weaker neighbor and withdraw its forces from Kuwait."

The U.N. deadline expired at 8 a.m. Wednesday here on a bright, cloudless morning, finding U.S. and allied ground troops continuing their movement northward toward the Saudi border, unhampered by the rain that bathed the Arabian Desert for the previous two days.

"We're a bunch of racehorses that smell the barn right now," said Army Chief Warrant Officer Ron Moring, 32, an 82nd Airborne Division helicopter pilot. "It's time to quit the pre-game show. We're a lot more serious about what we're doing. There's a little more excitement in the air."

At a command briefing in Riyadh Wednesday, U.S. military officials had set the order of battle. Army Lt. Col. Greg Pepin said U.S. troops deployed against Iraq now numbered 425,000, only 5,000 short of the number deemed necessary by the Pentagon to mount an offensive against more than 500,000 Iraqi troops deployed against them.

The latest figures on U.S. military strength included 320,000 Army and Marine ground troops, six aircraft carrier battle groups and two battleships, Pepin said. In all, he added, Desert Shield has now deployed 1,700 helicopters and 1,800 warplanes in the region.

In addition, French President Francois Mitterrand committed on Wednesday some 16,000 French troops to any offensive in what until this morning was called Operation Desert Shield. Premier Michel Rocard said the French forces would be placed under U.S. military command, for "pre-determined missions" of a specific duration, including "the liberation of Kuwait."

With the French commitment, Pepin said, 16 nations had forces arrayed against Iraq -- more than a half-million troops in all -- and another three nations had committed non-combatant ground forces, such as medical units. Fourteen countries have sent warships to the region, he said, and U.S. Navy sources said the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt had transited the Suez Canal to the Red Sea Tuesday and the aircraft carrier America was in the eastern Mediterranean. With six carrier battle groups now in the region, the Navy had 470 warplanes deployed in the region.

Although the Jan. 15 deadline had passed, northbound lanes of Saudi highways remained clogged with caravans of vehicles carrying everything from main battle tanks to drinking water, an indication that many units were still moving toward forward assault positions.

Rain earlier in the week also retarded preparations somewhat. At one forward supply base, Marines spent a good part of Tuesday and Wednesday emptying trenches and bunkers of water and drying communications gear. The rain also briefly turned some dirt roads into muddy swamps, but most areas had dried out by late Wednesday beneath the desert sun.

For many units, the prospect of battle brought a growing sense of urgency to training exercises. Pepin detailed a complicated regimen for almost all ground combat divisions, including live-fire exercises with M-1A1 tanks, small arms and artillery, as well as night maneuvers, night obstacle-breaching, anti-armor tactics and mine warfare.

At the 82nd Airborne Division Wednesday, soldiers performed "Military Operations in Urban Terrain," checking for booby traps, breaking into artificial buildings and clearing them of enemy soldiers by firing their M-16 rifles into stuffed dummies. When the balloon heads popped, the drills were over.

The 82nd Airborne, one of the few lightly armed units in what promises to be a predominantly heavy weapons war, will likely be called upon to occupy and secure Kuwait City clearing it of Iraqi troops.

Pepin noted that there had been no military indication that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein intended to take his troops out of Kuwait. "We continue to see Iraq occupying defensive positions, fortifying those positions and not withdrawing," he said.

He also noted, however, that the Iraqis "do have the capability of going on the offensive on short notice." His statement marked the first time in months that a U.S. military spokesman in Saudi Arabia had suggested the possibility of an Iraqi attack.

The U.S. Central Command had consistently portrayed Iraqi soldiers and tanks as a purely defensive force dug into protective bunkers behind a formidable belt of barbed wire, mines, trenches and other obstacles.

Pepin refused to expand on Iraqi intentions, and also ducked questions about the state of readiness of U.S. forces, saying only, "We are prepared to carry out any orders the president {Bush} directs." He said that second-stage, reinforcement deployments announced by Defense Secretary Richard Cheney in November "are on schedule."

This left unresolved the issue of whether the Army's VII Corps, consisting of three tank divisions from Germany and Fort Riley, Kan., had had time to organize fully and conduct necessary training before taking their places in the front line.

For the first time in the month that the U.S. Central Command has been giving briefings in Riyadh, Pepin mentioned that VII Corps had been conducting training exercises, and his figures for total troop strength also suggested that virtually all VII Corps personnel had arrived in the region. Still, several military sources have indicated that some VII Corps equipment was still en route to Saudi Arabia by ship.

Rear Adm. William M. Fogarty, commander of the U.S. Middle East Force and the Maritime Intercept Force, said Wednesday allied ships had sighted 20 floating mines in the Persian Gulf over the last few weeks, but added that he had "no indication" that the mines were deliberately set loose by the Iraqis. He suggested that they had come loose from their moorings along the Kuwaiti coast and had drifted south.

But the early focus of any war against Iraq is expected to be a prolonged air offensive, as U.S. and allied warplanes try first to neutralize Iraqi air defenses, then destroy Iraqi planes and finally move to provide close air support to ground forces.

Combined air exercises recently included Operation Fish Barrel, which tested command and control procedures for attacking enemy armor. The air forces involved were U.S., Saudi, British and French, as well as the U.S. Army's Cobra and Apache attack helicopters.

Pepin several times mentioned participation by Saudi troops in combined exercises, taking particular notice of about 490 Saudi combat engineers who practiced techniques for breaching "enemy obstacle belts" and mine-clearing. The Saudis have said they will participate on the front lines of any ground assault. Egyptians, Kuwaitis and other gulf state forces are also expected to play a front line role.

Pepin called special attention to U.S. air warfare preparations, describing several combined exercises by "Joint Air Attack Teams" (JAAT) comprised of troops on the ground and their supporting aircraft: "JAAT . . . {envisions} the operation of attack aircraft from the Air Force, Navy and Marines in conjunction with friendly artillery and attack helicopters such as the Cobra and the Apache engaging multiple targets at the same time at the same location on the battlefield," Pepin said. "JAAT operations enable maximum firepower simultaneously to destroy multiple targets. It's a fantastic capability."

Journalists have not been allowed to witness JAAT exercises, but military escorts have in recent days sent pools of reporters to visit Air Force and Marine air combat units, a rare occurrence until the last two weeks.

At an air base in Central Saudi Arabia, the 53rd Tactical Fighter Wing counted down the final seconds until the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline expired, then gathered in front of one of their F-15C fighters for a group picture.

"We finally broke down the bureaucracy of how to get a picture," laughed squadron commander Lt. Col. Randy Bigum, 41, of Springfield, Va. "Organizing 40 pilots is a contradiction in terms."

Like many Desert Shield soldiers, the pilots regarded Jan. 15 as the opening gun in what they believe will be a quick, brutal -- and successful -- war: "There's not going to be an Iraqi airplane flying after the second day of the war. That's what our whole objective is," said pilot Capt. Mike Miller, 28, an F-15 pilot from Kingsport, Tenn.

Elsewhere the mood was more somber. At the 82nd Airborne, paratroops wrapped up keepsakes and souvenirs and mailed them home, one less package to carry with them. Others burned their letters, so no one could trace the addresses.

U.S. Marines went about their preparations for war in a mood of grim resignation.

"I don't know anyone who doesn't want to go home," Staff Sgt. Allen Bruce, 27, of Riverton, Kan., told his men in a muster shortly after a red dawn overcame the nighttime chill.

"You are not the only ones in these holes," he added, referring to the earthen fortifications where Marines at this forwardmost supply depot work and sleep. "You're not the only ones pulling all-nighters. We all are. We're all tired. We're all dirty. We all stink. But that's life in the Magic Kingdom."

© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post

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