WashingtonPost.com Navigation Bar
Fog of War Analysis War Goals Airstrikes Resources Front Page

Attacks at Saudi Border Kill 12 U.S. Marines

By Caryle Murphy and Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 31, 1991; Page A01

Post time line
IN NORTHEASTERN SAUDI ARABIA WITH U.S. FORCES, Jan. 30—Iraqi tanks and infantry soldiers thrust across the border into Saudi Arabia at four points in assaults that left 12 U.S. Marines dead, two U.S. Army soldiers missing and at least 24 Iraqi tanks destroyed today in the first major ground fighting since the Persian Gulf War began two weeks ago.

While U.S. artillery fire and warplanes drove two attacking columns of Iraqi armor back across the border into Kuwait in what one Marine officer described as a "hellacious" battle, Iraqi forces that rolled into the deserted coastal town of Khafji, six miles into Saudi Arabia, continued to hold the town late tonight despite assaults from allied ground and air forces. U.S. sources described Iraqi casualties as "heavy" but gave no figures.

Late tonight, allied forces led by Saudi troops and including tanks from the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar stormed Khafji after U.S. air strikes and heavy pounding by U.S. Marine artillery. Some Saudi armored personnel carriers were reported to have entered the town but other troops, including some U.S. Marines, came under heavy rocket fire and were forced to retreat. A Marine official told reporters that "the status of Khafji is still in question."

{Early Thursday, the allies regrouped and mounted a second assault, but U.S. officials said they had no new information on the fighting.}

"The mere fact that they {the Iraqis} launched these attacks indicates they have a lot of fight left in them," Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, senior U.S. military commander here, told reporters tonight, adding, "I don't think the battle is over by a long shot."

Military officials here would not elaborate on the reportedly "heavy" casualties Iraq suffered. Schwarzkopf, answering a question about Iraqi military casualties in general, explained his position on casualty figures, saying, "All it would be is a rough estimate, and I don't like dealing in rough estimates when you start talking about enemy casualties. I told you, I'm anti-body count."

{A Pentagon operations officer, who declined to be identified, told the Los Angeles Times that "the Iraqis lost up to 500" in the attacks. "We waxed them," he said.}

Radio Baghdad trumpeted the thrust into Saudi Arabia as a move "to teach the aggressors the lessons they deserve," and said it had been planned by President Saddam Hussein and senior aides on Saturday.

It claimed that Iraqi forces were "wiping out the renegade invaders and knocking out the forces of infidelity," but, addressing Saudis, it said, "We do not covet your land. . . . Our entry . . . is made necessary by the circumstances of the fight against the armies of atheism."

The Iraqi attacks, particularly the seizure of Khafji, appeared to have caught U.S. military planners by surprise.

American military officials in Saudi Arabia speculated that Iraqi forces may have launched the four attacks today in an effort to draw allied troops into a ground war the Bush administration says it is not yet ready to begin. Other military commanders speculated that the assaults may have been prompted by the nightly shelling of Iraqi positions in Kuwait by U.S. troops just across the border in Saudi Arabia.

In two coordinated attacks near Kuwait's north-south border with Saudi Arabia, on the western portion of the front, about 20 Iraqi Soviet-built T-55 tanks crossed into Saudi Arabia against a barrage of Marine artillery fire, while allied fighter-bombers hit the intruding tanks and personnel carriers with missiles and cluster bombs, according to pool reports filed by journalists near the fighting.

Many of the 12 allied ground battle fatalities of the war were believed to be inside two light armored vehicles destroyed by Iraqi tank fire during a battle that Marine Lt. Col. Cliff Myers said was "hellacious."

Two other Marines were reported wounded in those skirmishes.

U.S. troops and warplanes drove invading Iraqi forces back into Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. U.S. military officials said 13 Iraqi prisoners of war were taken in the fighting.

Overall in today's border battles, U.S. pilots reported hitting 41 Iraqi tanks, and military officials said they confirmed the destruction of 24 Iraqi tanks and 13 other vehicles, most filled with troops.

U.S. military officials acknowledged unconfirmed reports that hundreds of Iraqi troops and dozens of tanks and armored vehicles were massing tonight just across the Kuwaiti border from Khafji.

"I expect a lot more fighting tonight," Schwarzkopf told reporters in a late night briefing. "We're ready for whatever comes in there."

A motorized Marine patrol launched a daring rescue mission into embattled Khafji in an unsuccessful effort to rescue two Army soldiers who apparently took a wrong turn and found themselves in the midst of the firefight. The soldiers remained missing after the rescue team found their truck, wheels still spinning and passenger door open, smashed into the side of a wall.

Staff Sgt. Don Gallagher, 30, a Marine from Great Falls, Mont., leaped out of his patrol vehicle as a pair of Marine Cobra gunships flew overhead, and dashed around the abandoned truck yelling, "U.S. Marines, U.S. Marines," in hopes that his Army colleagues were still in the area.

At that moment, the rescue team spotted what it believed were two Soviet-made armored personnel carriers and three green-uniformed Iraqi soldiers across the street. The Marines jumped back into their Humvee jeep and drove to a nearby gas station where they consulted a military identification book to determine whether the armored vehicle they had just spotted was Iraqi or a Saudi vehicle.

"This is it, sir," one patrol member told the senior officer, pointing to a picture of a Soviet-built BMP armored personnel carrier.

Troops radioed the hovering Cobra gunships who slipped back into the town at powerline-level and fired at least six TOW anti-tank missiles at the two BMPs, but destroyed only one, according to eyewitness accounts filed by a pool reporter.

The Iraqis launched two incursions into Khafji. In the first, a tank and an armored personnel carrier convoy of about 20 vehicles, which transported about 100 troops,entered the town under the full moon of Tuesday night, according to pool reports.

U.S. Marine officials said the Saudis, who have responsibility for guarding the town, which has been deserted since the earliest days of the war, abandoned their roadblock on the outskirts of town. The Marines said they found the outnumbered Saudi guards' tents and a helmet early this morning, suggesting a hasty retreat.

But other Saudi and Qatari troops later attacked the invading Iraqi forces, in what some officials described as a political consideration to leave the recapture of the town to Arab forces.

"There was artillery fire with the Saudi army doing the firing," said Marine Chief Warrant Officer Charles Rowe. Marine Cobra helicopter gunships and AV-8B Harrier jump jets were scrambled to support the Arab forces.

Early this morning, U.S. Marines set up artillery positions on a windswept stretch of road south of Khafji to block any Iraqi effort to move south, and began firing into the Iraqi positions in Khafji.

Critical Saudi oil refineries and port facilities are located slightly more than 100 miles south of Khafji.

Later in the morning, with Iraqi forces attacking Saudi and Qatari troops near the town, a column of about a dozen American-made M-60 tanks of the Saudi military headed toward Khafji. Saudi tankers raised their fists in victory signs as they passed U.S. Marine artillery positions on the way into the occupied town.

A second Iraqi thrust into Khafji came about midday today. The Saudi National Guard, positioned in the area, had reported that up to 80 tanks and other vehicles were approaching Khafji from Kuwait, apparently signaling that they were ready to surrender by turning their tank turrets backwards, according to U.S. military officials at the scene.

"They have their turrets reversed and they are not indicating any hostile intention," said Maj. Craig Huddleston, after hearing the Saudi report over the radio. But even as the Saudis prepared to accept the "surrendering" troops, Huddleston warned his troops, "We've got to play this close to our vest. We don't want to blow this one." He ordered them to determine "hostile intent, positive identification" before taking any action.

Less than 10 minutes later, another report crackled over the radio. The tanks and artillery had opened fire on the Saudi and Qatari troops. "They have engaged the Saudis in combat," said Huddleston, "and we're going to kill them."

In the battles to the west of Khafji on the north-south border with Kuwait, Iraqi tanks and armored personnel carriers advanced on the border about 11 p.m. Tuesday night.

Under the glare of illumination flares, Marine ground units armed with TOW anti-tank missiles attacked. U.S. fighter-bombers dropped cluster bombs and fired missiles at the intruding tanks. By about 9 a.m. today, the Iraqi forces had begun retreating back into occuppied Kuwait, Marine officials said.

U.S. military field commanders said they believed the Iraqi incursions were "probes" designed to determine allied troop positions.

Schwarzkopf, asked at a press conference tonight about why and how Iraqi troops could muster the force for such attacks after the heavy allied aerial bombardment, said:

"First of all, we haven't hit this area very hard. We haven't hit this area anywhere near as hard as we've hit the Republican Guards in some of the other areas. So this one hasn't been hit very hard. We may change our mind now, obviously.

"Secondly, there is an old saying, 'The best defense is a good offense.' And sometimes, believe me, when people have been sitting in a hole being hit day after day after day by air, they decide that rather than sit around and take this any more, why don't we get up and do something else about it, and it could be that.

"Thirdly, the Marines have been conducting very effective artillery raids in this area for about three nights in a row. It's entirely possible that these folks, based on the severe damage that they had the night before, knew all the artillery raids have been about the same time. This may have been a preemptive attack to try and get after those forces that have been attacking them three nights beforehand."

Caryle Murphy, with a pool of journalists with U.S. Marines, reported from south of Khafji and Moore reported from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, using pool reports and other material.

© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post

Back to the top

Navigation Bar