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Iraq Time Line

 

Allies Meet Little Resistance, Capture Thousands of POWS

By Rick Atkinson and William Claiborne
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 25, 1991; Page A01

More than 200,000 allied troops smashed deep into Iraq and Kuwait yesterday, encountering little resistance and capturing thousands of Iraqi soldiers in the most sweeping armored attack since World War II.

Swarms of armor and infantry forces poured through "several dozen crossing points picked to exploit {Iraqi} weaknesses," according to a senior Pentagon official, and by late last night a large U.S. Marine force had reportedly reached the outskirts of Kuwait City after devastating an Iraqi division. Although liberation of the Kuwaiti capital probably remains several days away, the official said, the invasion was unfolding "better than our fondest wish."

The U.S. VII Corps, a heavy tank force with more than 70,000 soldiers, raced north through the Iraqi desert for what U.S. commanders believe will be a decisive clash against eight Republican Guard divisions, a battle expected to begin today or Tuesday, according to a senior Pentagon official. That was part of a great western drive intended to outflank and envelop the Iraqis with forces that included British, French and elements of the U.S. Army XVIII Airborne Corps.

"So far, the offensive is progressing with dramatic success," Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of Operation Desert Storm, told reporters in Saudi Arabia yesterday. Allied casualties have been "extremely light," the general added.

Early this morning, the U.S. Central Command in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said in a statement that allied forces had captured about 14,000 Iraqi prisoners. A Pentagon official had said earlier that the allies had accomplished in 12 hours what had been expected to take 24.

Pilots flying over the battlefield said tanks from the Republican Guard were moving south toward the advancing allies, the Associated Press reported early this morning.

"They're finally flushing," Lt. Col. Steve Turner, an F-15E fighter-bomber squadron commander, told AP. "They've got to do something -- either that, or get killed in their holes."

The speed with which the allies crossed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's much-vaunted "line of death," including deep minefields and oil-filled trenches that were supposed to burst into a deadly inferno, astonished even the most optimistic of field commanders. "We're going to go around, over, through, on top, underneath, and any other way it takes to beat 'em," Schwarzkopf vowed.

After a week of turbulent and ultimately unsuccessful diplomatic efforts to force the Iraqis from Kuwait, military commanders said they have now been given rein to pursue the enemy army deep into Iraq "to dismantle {Saddam's} capability to wreak havoc," as the senior Pentagon official put it. "We're going to take this thing apart. . . . He is now playing by our rules."

The invasion, which stretches intermittently across a 300-mile front from the Persian Gulf to western Iraq, includes about 150,000 U.S. troops supplemented with another 50,000 from Saudi Arabia, Britain, France, Syria, Kuwait, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Another 50,000 American troops were being held in reserve, at least until the first 24 hours of fighting had passed, the official said.

U.S. pilots flying overhead described a kind of huge, mechanical steeplechase, with countless tanks, armored personnel carriers and other vehicles tearing pell-mell northward across the desert. "I can't fathom the size of this {land} operation. I can't grasp it," Col. David Hamlin, 47, an Air Force F-16A pilot, said after returning from an attack on Iraqi artillery. "You have heard people talk about the enormity of this air power {but it} pales in comparison."

Although U.S. officials publicly said little about the fighting and released no casualty information, some allies were less tight-lipped. French defense officials disclosed that their light armor forces, backed by paratroopers from the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, had surged 30 miles into Iraq, capturing 1,000 prisoners and suffering only one casualty.

Several correspondents with the French troops said they were pushing northeast toward the Iraqi town of Nasiriyah on the Euphrates River in an effort to sever supply lines. A British correspondent with Saudi forces said hundreds of tanks and armored personnel carriers had dashed 15 miles into Kuwait before encountering Iraqi troops who "were very happy to be taken prisoner."

So many Iraqi soldiers were surrendering, in fact, that commanders worried about prisoners clogging their advance and otherwise impeding military operations. "We all need a lot of help with these POWs," one Marine commander pleaded. "I have a couple of thousand. We can't take care of them."

The invasion began with attacks by U.S. Marines and Army paratroopers, Army helicopter assault troops and Special Forces units, in coordinated surges with French and Arab forces, Schwarzkopf said. By early afternoon, or roughly eight hours after the attack began, those forces had been joined by Army mechanized and tank units, as well as other allied armor troops.

Despite the first-day successes, which paralleled the achievements of the initial air attacks on Jan. 17, U.S. and allied officials cautioned against premature celebration since better-equipped and more seasoned Iraqi forces are dug in north of the current advances. "I think it is right to be cautious," British Prime Minister John Major said yesterday. "This is a very early stage. . . . There may be more difficult days ahead."

A news "brown-out" imposed by the Bush administration and honored by most allied officials made it difficult to draw a comprehensive picture of the invasion. But some of the initial images, from both television pictures and correspondents' reports, put a more vivid face on a war that for nearly six weeks had been waged from 10,000 feet by allied pilots: disheveled and disarmed Iraqi prisoners shambling single-file across the desert; smoky oil fires smudging the skies of eastern Kuwait; tanks and trucks hurtling forward in a boil of dust from horizon to horizon in a vast assault. Capture of Iraqis Stressed

The allied war plan, codified either in operations orders or "rules of engagement" governing the battle, stresses the capture rather than killing of Iraqi troops, according to a senior Pentagon official. Psychological operations, intended to weaken the Iraqi will to fight, intensified for several days before the invasion began at 4 a.m. yesterday (8 p.m. Saturday EST). One typical encounter yesterday involved an Army armor battalion, which destroyed several Iraqi tanks and captured many others when the survivors opened their hatches and waved strips of white cloth, another Pentagon official said.

Iraq's defiant regime countered allied claims of success with boasts of its own, purporting to have "wiped out" an allied paratrooper assault while inflicting heavy casualties on the invaders elsewhere. An Iraqi military communique also denied reports that allied forces had captured thousands of Iraqi troops on a Persian Gulf island. With unusual specificity, the communique said the Iraqi 3rd and 1st Divisions were grappling in an "epic confrontation against the onslaught. . . . Our forces repulsed and contained the enemy attacks and foiled their objectives. The 3rd Division burned and destroyed hundreds of enemy tanks and vehicles and inflicted large numbers of casualties."

Saddam, in a shrill speech broadcast by Baghdad Radio, denounced "the treacherous Bush and his stooges" who "decided to commit a crime of shameful disgrace." Failure to repulse the invaders will bring "nothing but vice and defeat," the Iraqi leader warned.

"Fight them, Iraqis!" Saddam declared. "All Iraqis, fight them with all the power you have and all struggle for everything." Checkpoints in Baghdad

Baghdad Radio urged "Arabs everywhere" to "strike at foreign interests . . . the interests of the infidel Americans and those of the Saud family and others aligned against the Arab nations." In the Iraqi capital, militiamen set up checkpoints for the first time during the war at key intersections and bridges, reportedly asking passersby to join the militia, according to the Associated Press.

When the invasion swung into full force just after dawn yesterday, pool reporters with the 101st Airborne Division -- the Screaming Eagles -- described a sky turned purple from the dust churned by lumbering, troop-carrying Chinook helicopters. Flying from 13 launch zones on the western Iraqi border, the choppers ferried more than 2,000 soldiers deep into Iraq in a move to cut Iraqi supply lines along the Euphrates River.

As the deafening beat of hundreds of helicopters reverberated through the morning air, Sgt. Mike Southall, 34, of Galveston, Tex., boarded a Chinook slung with two Humvee vehicles and declared, "We'd walk through the gates of hell if we knew we were going home."

The armada of 300 Blackhawk troop carriers, Chinook cargo helicopters and other gunships was led by Apache attack helicopters armed with Hellfire anti-tank missiles and flying only 50 feet above the ground in an attack that officers likened to the 101st's pre-invasion airdrop behind enemy lines before the Normandy landing in 1944. "This," said Maj. Dan Grigson, "is a bold, bodacious action."

The troopers ferried howitzers, vehicles and tons of fuel and ammunition in what commanders called the biggest air assault in military history. Flying to a forward supply base, which by mid-afternoon covered more than 60 square miles of desert, the 2,000-man force was subsequently doubled by a force that drove across the border on what the soldiers described as a "highway to hell." The assault encountered only perfunctory opposition, but Maj. Gen. J.H. Binford Peay said that "once we cut deeper, then we expect him to fight back."

The collapse of diplomatic efforts to end the war, followed just hours later by the allied invasion, caused the Soviet Union yesterday to accuse the United States and Iraq of missing "a very real chance" for peace. Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Vitaly Churkin said the differences between a Moscow-brokered proposal endorsed by Baghdad and Washington's demands "were not great {and} could have been worked out" by the U.N. Security Council "within a day or two. It is still not too late to do this."

Secretary of State James A. Baker III said yesterday "we're not yanking the {U.S.} proposal off the table. . . . But we would want to test any Iraqi acceptance of that and make sure that it is genuine." Bush's ultimatum on Friday gave Iraq one week to vacate Kuwait and insisted on other conditions, including Iraq's assistance in clearing mines and booby-traps.

Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, predicted the ground war would be largely over in "three or four days," with U.S. forces controlling "that part of Iraq which is south of Basra." Such an occupation could make the Iraqis more receptive to allied negotiation demands, such as the ouster of Saddam or his Baathist Party from power, Aspin suggested.

Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney said, "We have no interest in occupying Iraq, but we've also said that there won't be any sanctuary inside Iraq for those forces who've been involved in occupying Kuwait." Saddam, Cheney added, has "made more significant misjudgments than any individual in modern times."

Although Schwarzkopf derided reports of Iraqi uses of chemical weapons as "bogus," Robert M. Gates, the deputy national security adviser, reiterated the White House view that "individual commanders in the field who use chemical weapons may be subject to war crimes trials." Attack Sets Off Protests

The ground attack triggered demonstrations and protests from Madrid, where 25,000 Spaniards carried banners supporting the Iraqi people, to Tokyo, where 1,200 anti-war activists demonstrated in a park. Pro-Saddam enthusiasts in the Arab world decried the invasion, and an official of the Jordanian government, which has leaned increasingly toward Baghdad, expressed "great sorrow, anger and condemnation" to the state news agency.

Off the Kuwaiti coast, the U.S. Navy helicopter carrier USS Nassau sent tank-fighting vehicles and other equipment ashore to reinforce land-based Marines fighting in Kuwait. Marine spokesmen refused to give the exact destination of the landing craft or to say whether troops were accompanying the equipment.

The Navy also brought about 12 ships farther north in the Persian Gulf to join the Marine amphibious force gathered there. Rear Adm. John B. LaPlante, commander of the task force, said Marines embarked aboard ship were "poised" for a landing, "but I can't say that I expect something, and I can't say that I don't." The task force mission -- whether the Marines land or not -- is, he said, to "fix certain Iraqi divisions in place so they are unable to move out to the flank of {land-based} Marines or Army forces."

Marine pilots shifted their Harrier jump jets from bombing runs to close air support for troops fighting in Kuwait. Rain and thick clouds of smoke from burning oil wells hampered operations and forced cancellation of some sorties. Air Force pilots also complained about the reduced visibility. Fighter pilot Capt. Mark Atwell, 29, said smoke cloaked more than 50 percent of Kuwait and "definitely hurts us and helps the enemy." Another pilot flying at 10,000 feet said he couldn't see the ground.

One Pentagon official described the first days' maneuvers as "a Daytona 500 in the sand," in which most of the attacking units sped past their "markers" or initial goals. The only tough engagement mentioned by Schwarzkopf involved Iraqi forces that moved south from a suburb of Kuwait City to strike a Marine column headed north. The Iraqis were intercepted by reconnaissance units on the flanks of the allied column and repulsed with the help of artillery and air strikes, officials said.

Elsewhere along the border, troops of a U.S. light infantry brigade rumbled across the frontier, past a sign that declared, "Hey Saddam: We're coming your way. Welcome Devil and Panther Paratroopers to Falcon Country."

For troops of the 1st Marine Division, the spearhead of the long-awaited offensive to liberate Kuwait began early yesterday against heavily fortified Iraqi positions northwest of the Wafra oilfields, about 12 miles from the L-shaped "heel" of Kuwait's southwest border with Saudi Arabia. Double Line of Defenses

Backed by supporting artillery and missile fire, as well as close air support from fighter-bombers and Cobra assault helicopters, up to 20,000 Marines launched their attack against a double line of Iraqi defenses straddling a heavily mined "killing field."

Combat engineers cut their way through sand berms at scores of points in an effort to confuse the Iraqis over the intended breach locations. Then sappers blasted access lanes through fields sown with landmines by firing lines of plastic hose filled with explosives across the fields.

Col. Carl Fulford, commander of a Marine task force called Ripper, told pool reporters the breach points were selected because each appeared to be the weakest link in heavily fortified but lightly defended Iraqi lines. Allied intelligence had shown that the breach points in the defensive lines, about 140 yards in depth, had not been properly maintained by the Iraqis, Fulford said. In some cases, the defenders had withdrawn before the attack.

The Marines, who had been taking anti-nerve gas and anti-anthrax pills for several days, initially went into the battle wearing full chemical protection suits and gas masks. But the Iraqis evidently refrained from using either chemical or biological weapons.

By midmorning, convoys of allied trucks were pouring into Kuwait to replenish supplies of ammunition, fuel and water. Tanks and artillery batteries held in reserve during the initial onslaught rolled foward to reinforce the first wave of attackers. Despite the overcast, attack planes and B-52 bombers flew hundreds of sorties over the battlefield as the campaign unfolded.

Describing the allied tank formations, pilot Capt. John "Smiley" Sizemore said, "You could see them in columns. They look like little ants in a row coming from a peanut butter and jelly sandwich somebody left on the ground. Just lots of them down there." Last-Minute Changes

Several pilots spoke of targets and missions being changed at the last minute because the front was advancing so rapidly. "Some guys said if this is your day off, you're going to miss half the war," said Capt. Gordon Spooner, of Syracuse, N.Y.

From Kuwait City came unconfirmed reports of continued destruction of property by Iraqi forces, with a number of government buildings -- including the Saif Palace, Bayan Conference Palace and Parliament -- said to be on fire. Many houses were without water, and the city's power supply system stopped functioning early yesterday amid reports that some electrical stations had been blown up, according to Kuwaiti sources.

Atkinson reported from Washington, Claiborne from Saudi Arabia. Staff writers Barton Gellman, Guy Gugliotta, R. Jeffrey Smith, George C. Wilson and Bob Woodward in Washington, Jackson Diehl in Jerusalem, Glenn Frankel in London, Caryle Murphy in Saudi Arabia and staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post

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