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Iraq Time Line

 

Allied Forces Invade Kuwait as Bush Orders Ground War

By Rick Atkinson and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 24, 1991; Page A01

The United States and its allies launched a massive ground invasion of Kuwait last night, just hours after Iraq rejected a U.S. ultimatum to leave the occupied nation.

British and French news agencies reported multiple allied thrusts across the long border Saudi Arabia shares with Iraq and Kuwait, with some units in the east storming into Kuwait and others to the west sweeping into Iraq in a flanking maneuver. Still other troops were engaged in an elaborate series of feints to confuse Iraqi commanders, correspondents said. Little Iraqi resistance was reported by one well-placed Arab source, who also said that allied forces had already succeeded in establishing an air base at a captured Kuwaiti airfield.

"The liberation of Kuwait has now entered a final phase," President Bush declared in a somber, two-minute address televised from the White House at 10 p.m.

The president said he had directed Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of Operation Desert Storm, "to use all forces available, including ground forces, to eject the Iraqi army from Kuwait." That order, Bush said, came after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "was given one last chance, set forth in very explicit terms, to do what he should have done more than six months ago -- withdraw from Kuwait without condition or further delay and comply fully with the resolutions passed by the United Nations Security Council."

The allied invasion represented a final failure of diplomacy in the Persian Gulf crisis, including several dramatic days of peace proposals offered by the Soviet Union and ultimately rejected by the allied coalition as too lenient because they did not require Iraq's immediate and unconditional retreat.

Bush, who flew back to Washington from Camp David shortly before his statement, made clear that one reason for ordering the ground offensive was new evidence that Iraqi forces are conducting wholesale executions of Kuwaiti citizens and systematically destroying Kuwait's oil facilities. "What we have seen is a redoubling of Saddam Hussein's efforts to destroy completely Kuwait and its people," Bush said, adding, "I have complete confidence in the ability of the coalition forces swiftly and decisively to accomplish their mission."

Reports from the combat front were sketchy last night, although correspondents with U.S. Marine and Navy forces reported intense firing and a widespread surging forward of coalition troops. Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney, in a brief appearance at the Pentagon after Bush's statement, warned that "we cannot permit Iraqi forces to know anything about what we're doing" and refused to provide any details of the ground operations. Daily military briefings in Saudi Arabia and Washington will be suspended indefinitely, Cheney added.

The invasion raised the curtain for what is likely to be the largest clash of armies since World War II, as the allied force of more than 700,000 troops is hurled against an entrenched, 43-division Iraqi army that numbered 545,000 soldiers before the war began. Allied dominion in the skies, with an air armada of more than 2,000 warplanes, and on the seas, with a combined fleet of more than 100 warships, gives the coalition such an enormous tactical advantage that most senior Pentagon officials believe this decisive phase of the war is likely to last no more than a few weeks. But Iraq has at least 2,500 tanks and 1,500 artillery guns left, enough to put up a desperate and bloody fight.

Although the precise invasion plans are closely held, the allied war plan contemplated a swift and massive assault aimed at stunning Iraqi forces into flight or surrender. On the western front, U.S. and British armored divisions are expected to sweep around Iraqi lines, enveloping those Iraqi forces closest to the border and threatening eight Republican Guard divisions entrenched in southern Iraq.

In the east, U.S. Marines will punch through Iraqi front lines and minefields into Kuwait, clearing a path for Saudi and Kuwaiti forces to ultimately liberate Kuwait City. Four aircraft carriers, two battleships and a flotilla of other ships in the Persian Gulf will support that effort.

U.S. airborne and helicopter-borne divisions also are expected to operate behind Iraqi lines, while American special forces teams sow confusion by attacking enemy rear areas. A large amphibious task force is in the northern Persian Gulf with 31 allied warships and 17,000 U.S. Marines aboard. But it was not known whether these forces would actually attempt to go ashore in Kuwait or further north on Iraqi territory.

The attack marked the beginning of the fourth and final phase of the U.S. war plan which began when allied planes first struck Baghdad in the early morning hours of Jan. 17. The first three phases involved intense air attacks -- which in the past 38 days grew to more than 94,000 sorties -- against Iraqi command headquarters and nuclear, chemical and biological facilities; supply routes and depots, particularly those leading into Kuwait; and Iraqi troop units and military equipment. Air War Will Continue

Those air phases were never intended to be entirely distinct from one another. Allied bombers attacked elite Republican Guard units in the first days of the war, for example, and have continued to strike command headquarters throughout the past five weeks. Moreover, Pentagon officials have repeatedly noted that the air campaign will continue as the ground war rages, although "close air support" -- the intensive air attacks against enemy units locked with allied ground forces -- will increase in number and importance.

For months before the war began and for weeks afterwards, military strategists argued over the likelihood that air power alone would be sufficient either to drive the huge Iraqi army from Kuwait or destroy it. Most senior U.S. officers, including the two infantry officers running the war -- Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Schwarzkopf, the top U.S. commander in Saudi Arabia -- have always believed that intensely violent armored blows would be necessary to demolish the Iraqis and retake Kuwait.

A major goal of the allied offensive is to draw Iraqi tanks and troops out of their fortified positions so that alliance air power can attack them in the open. The ground attack also is intended to smash the remaining elements of Saddam's army -- including his still sizable tank and artillery forces -- so that when the war finally ends, he will no longer pose a military threat in the region. One other effect of the campaign could be to so weaken the elite Republican Guard units that they can no longer protect Saddam against any would-be internal insurrection.

Although U.S. officials gave subtle hints earlier in the day that the attack was near, confirmation from the government did not come until shortly after Bush's presidential helicopter touched down on the White House helipad at 9:33 p.m. The president and Barbara Bush, accompanied by Secretary of State James A. Baker III and his wife, Susan, were greeted by Vice President Quayle and other senior government advisers. Bush walked immediately to the Oval Office and prepared to give his brief speech.

Bush, whose unflinching determination to drive Iraq from Kuwait has galvanized American public opinion and welded the allied coalition together for more than six months, on Friday had given Baghdad roughly 24 hours to begin a withdrawal and one week to complete it. The ultimatum came in the middle of a Soviet diplomatic initiative offering Iraq a cease-fire followed by three weeks to withdraw -- terms Bush declared unacceptable.

Security Council Meets

As Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz was leaving Moscow yesterday, he officially endorsed Moscow's proposal. The U.N. Security Council convened a closed session to review the plan and await word on whether Iraq might also heed Bush's ultimatum.

What many diplomats believed was the last hope to avert a ground war slipped away when Izzat Ibrahim, deputy chairman of Iraq's ruling Revolutionary Command Council, declared in Baghdad that Bush's demand was "an aggressive ultimatum to which we will pay no attention." Later yesterday afternoon, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said allied reconnaissance had "detected no military activity" indicating an Iraqi withdrawal.

Bush had spent most of the day at Camp David on the phone to world leaders and his top advisers in Washington. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev spoke by telephone for 28 minutes shortly before the deadline passed, with the Soviet leader urging Bush to delay a ground war. But Bush indicated that the terms of his ultimatum represented the final position of the allied coalition.

Fitzwater bluntly restated that stance, saying: "The Iraqi approval of the Soviet proposal is without effect." Spokesmen for the Soviet and U.S. leaders, however, played down differences between the two nations. Soviet spokesman Vitaly Ignatenko said "it will be very difficult to shake this relationship"; Fitzwater reported that Bush had thanked Gorbachev for his "extensive efforts" in trying to persuade Iraq to comply with U.N. resolutions demanding Iraq's unconditional withdrawal.

Low Casualties to Date

The ground invasion came on the 38th day of war.. The U.S. expeditionary force of 533,000 equals almost precisely the peak number reached by American forces in Vietnam in 1968. American casualties to date have been extremely low: 23 killed in action, 34 wounded, 28 missing, 9 prisoners of war. But few military officers have any illusions that the U.S. bloodletting will remain so light in the trying days ahead.

As the allied forces thundered forward, most Americans appeared to believe the United States should not end the war until Saddam is forced from power and his army abandons most of its weapons in Kuwait, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. Both objectives go beyond the 12 U.N. resolutions that form the mandate for fighting the war. The poll reflected Bush's success in demonizing the Iraqi leader and convincing Americans of the righteousness of the allied cause

A similar enthusiasm for Saddam's ouster appeared to be growing on Capitol Hill yesterday, even among some of those who had urged continuation of sanctions before the war began. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said removing Saddam from power "ought to be our hope. . . . One hundred percent of the Congress would like to see that outcome."

Congressional support for Bush appeared to continue with news of last night's invasion. Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn) and Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), interviewed by NBC News, said they believed Bush would find few dissenters in the House or Senate. "I don't think any Democrat or Republican would have expected President Bush to do otherwise," Leahy said. "I think it was the only decision left for him to make."

Fitzwater said the overall plan for the liberation of Kuwait called for a ground phase and that Bush had approved this general plan on Jan. 15. That plan set out rough guidelines for how long the air war would last and when the ground phase would begin. The air war went on somewhat longer than anticipated because of the emphasis the allied forces put on eliminating Iraq's Scud missile launchers and because of bad weather, officials said.

Final approval of a ground offensive began when Cheney and Powell visited Saudi Arabia on Feb. 9 and 10. Bush asked them to bring back a recommendation on when the ground phase would be necessary, according to Fitzwater, and they returned with a general plan on how the ground war would be conducted. Bush approved that plan when he met with the two Pentagon officials at the White House on Feb. 11.

The plan called for Schwarzkopf to make a final recommendation for a specific time and date. When exactly that date was approved was unclear, but officials said a two-step process had been involved. The first step was the recommendation by Schwarzkopf, a window of some days in which the ground phase could begin. Sometime after that, Schwarzkopf recommended that the ground phase start at 8 p.m. EST yesterday.

Deadline in Bush's Last Offer

Fitzwater said Bush approved that date and time before the Soviets began their most recent diplomatic moves. On Thursday, Bush decided to make one last offer to Saddam to pull out, and Powell suggested that the offer include a deadline. The noon deadline was set anticipating that ground action would begin on schedule last night unless Saddam began to withdraw his forces.

Fitzwater said that once the deadline passed and Bush issued a brief public statement early yesterday afternoon saying that the war would continue, that was in essence the last authorization Schwarzkopf needed. Fitzwater said Bush talked several times yesterday with Cheney and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and made it clear "there was no reason not to go ahead."

Bush spent much of the day phoning other members of the coalition and also called the four living former presidents and four top congressional leaders yesterday afternoon to inform them that the ground war was beginning. Fitzwater said Bush did not tell Gorbachev about the timing of the ground war but made clear that the allied coalition intended to continue the campaign against Iraq.

Bush decided Friday afternoon that he would return from Camp David last night to tell the American people of the beginning of the invasion. Fitzwater said the first thing Bush asked when he entered the Oval Office last night was, "What have we heard?" Cheney then provided the president with preliminary reports about the fighting. After his brief remarks, the president returned to the Oval Office and watched television briefly before taking a short walk on the South Lawn.

Iraqi Combat Supplies Low

Intelligence officials yesterday said Iraqi forces are believed to have at most a two-week combat stock of ammunition, food, water and other critical supplies.

Asked to define an allied victory in the war, Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, operations director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, replied: "We are not going to be satisfied while any portion of {the Iraqi army} is still active and viable in Kuwait. When we have driven them out, we will have been successful and I think, concurrently, there won't be many of them left."

U.S. officials, who on Friday accused Iraq of waging a scorched-earth policy intent on methodically destroying Kuwait's oil industry, yesterday said the "terror campaign" had expanded to include systematic executions. Citing Kuwaiti resistance reports and "other {intelligence} collection means," Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal alleged that "in the last 24 to 48 hours" Iraqi forces had gone on a killing spree that he said represented "terrorism at its finest hour."

"There seems to be a systematic campaign of execution, particularly people that they may have tortured previously. They're sort of destroying the evidence, I guess, for lack of a better term," Neal charged. "And there's a systematic campaign of grabbing Kuwaitis along the streets and byways of Kuwait City and executing them, summarily executing them."

British Group Capt. Niall Irving, at a briefing in Riyadh, cited an unconfirmed report "that boys over the age of 13 and men -- apart from the elderly and apart from women -- are actually being rounded up in Kuwait." Rear Adm. Mike McConnell, intelligence director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke of reports that 100,000 Kuwaitis have been detained as part of the Iraqi occupation, but said other reports in recent days told of "2,000 to 10,000" being subjected to arbitrary arrest, torture, mutilation and rape.

200 Oil Wells on Fire

The number of detected oil well fires grew from about 150 Friday to 200 yesterday, as Iraq continued the destruction of "wellheads, {oil} gathering facilities and shipping terminals," Neal said.

Smoke from the fires continued to cover large swatches of eastern Kuwait, although steady northwest winds have been blowing much of the dark cloud out over the Persian Gulf. Allied officials continued to insist that the fires have had little impact on military operations, and Irving noted that "not a single airplane had to bring its bombs back or, indeed, deliver them on to any secondary target."

Before the announcement of the land attack, U.S. military officials reported that clear weather over Iraq and Kuwait had permitted a record 1,200 air sorties yesterday against targets in greater Kuwait, plus another 100 against Republican Guard units.

The U.S. Central Command yesterday provided the first comprehensive update in more than a week of Iraqi war machinery destroyed. Although some U.S. intelligence analysts in Washington are skeptical that the figures represent confirmed "kills," Neal said that U.S. commanders in Saudi Arabia believe that allied bombing over more than five weeks has destroyed 1,685 Iraqi tanks, 925 armored personnel carriers and more than 1,485 artillery pieces in the Kuwaiti theater.

Heavy Losses to Armored Units

Those numbers represent 39 percent of an estimated 4,280 Iraqi tanks, 32 percent of 2,870 personnel carriers and 48 percent of artillery guns in the theater when the war began. If accurate, such devastating losses would mean that the Iraqi army overall is teetering on collapse, although damage varies widely among units, senior Pentagon officials believe.

"Some {Iraqi military} organizations may be attrited as far as 90 percent, and some may be at 75, 80 or even 90 percent in strength," Neal said. The Iraqi "maintenance and repair capability, I think, is gone or nonexistent," he added.

McConnell noted that only 12 of the 43 Iraqi divisions in the Kuwaiti theater are armored units with substantial numbers of tanks and personnel carriers, so the new tally represents only "things we can see that have been destroyed." Allied intelligence cannot measure such critical factors as maintenance and fighting spirit, the admiral added.

Minutes before the U.S. ultimatum expired, Iraq fired a Scud missile at Israel. Witnesses said a U.S. Patriot missile battery returned fire and appeared to intercept the Scud above central Israel at 6:55 p.m. (11:55 a.m. EST). A military spokesmen said there were no injuries. Another Scud fired at Saudi Arabia yesterday morning apparently disintegrated in flight and tumbled into the desert. Allied pilots flew 100 sorties against the Scuds yesterday, augmented by another 200 armed reconnaissance missions flown by Air Force A-10s, although Neal said "the most recent Scud launches were from residential areas," which the United States has said are off-limits to allied pilots.

The Pentagon warned yesterday that Iraqi commanders who use chemical weapons will be held personally responsible by the allies. "They need to reflect in some depth on the wisdom of using chemical weapons against us because we won't take that lightly," Kelly said, without specifying the repercussions. "They would be making a real mistake in using them."

Baghdad Radio Broadcast

Baghdad Radio yesterday broadcast a military communique exhorting Iraqi troops on the southern front to "strike at the enemy where it hurts." Without mentioning the U.S. ultimatum, the message urged, "Strike and the whole of Iraq and the {Muslim} faithful will be on your side. Your families are waiting for you to return victorious. . . . You are defending your families and homeland."

The communique, Iraq's 59th since the war began Jan. 17, also loosed another verbal barrage on the allies by warning, "We will not hesitate and we will seek to turn the ground war, which they have wanted, into a hellfire that will sear their scoundrels. Their cohorts will tumble into the great crater of death."

Baghdad Radio also said that Saddam had chaired a meeting yesterday of the governing Revolutionary Command Council and leaders of his Baath Party. The officials discussed establishing "democratic national rule" in Kuwait if the Soviet plan was rejected, the broadcast said. The report gave few details, according to the Associated Press, but said the matter was being studied in cooperation with "religious and nationalist forces who are against imperialism and foreign domination."


Staff writers David S. Broder, Helen Dewar, Barton Gellman, David Hoffman and Barbara Vobejda in Washington, Michael Dobbs in Moscow, Jackson Diehl in Jerusalem, Molly Moore in Saudi Arabia and staff researchers Ralph Gaillard Jr. and Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

© 1991, The Washington Post

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