RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA, JAN. 17 -- Kuwait's tiny air force played a supporting role in the allied pre-dawn offensive against Iraq today as ground-attack aircraft pilots, protected by U.S. jet fighters, flew 24 sorties into their occupied homeland to bomb Iraqi targets.

One of Kuwait's fleet of aging but effective U.S.-built A-4 Skyhawks was downed by Iraqi anti-aircraft fire, but its pilot ejected and was reported safe, Kuwaiti military sources said. They said the attackers met no resistance from Iraqi aircraft.

"I was so glad to see Kuwait again," said one of the pilots. "I wanted to land there."

Morale among exiled Kuwaitis, who lost their country to Iraq's tank-led assault 5 1/2 months ago, soared today with the onset of the multinational war effort against Baghdad, but high spirits were tinged with concern about friends and relatives still under Iraqi control and the ultimate fate of their pillaged country.

"People are excited," said a Kuwaiti living in Bahrain. "But we still fear for the lives of people in Kuwait City."

The allied bombing appears to have caused heavy casualties among Iraqi troops, according to Kuwaiti Minister of State Abdul Rahman Awadi, who said he had been told by phone of "maybe hundreds of soldiers wounded from getting a heavy beating."

Awadi told reporters here that Kuwait's two main hospitals -- each with 500 beds -- had apparently been overwhelmed by Iraqi wounded and that even corridors were crowded. Awadi said he had been told also that some Iraqi troops in Kuwait had been seen abandoning their posts and fleeing in civilian clothes. "Our contacts {in Kuwait} are thankful, jubilant," he said.

Another Saudi-based Kuwaiti official said he had heard from Kuwait City that some Iraqi troops had apparently clashed with each other today at the Messila Beach Hotel, now being used as a military compound. The official said that nearby residents heard gunfire from the hotel and at first thought there had been an allied attack from the sea. Soon afterward, he said, ambulances arrived and took a number of wounded Iraqi soldiers to hospitals.

In addition, this official said, he was told that allied helicopters had attacked Iraqi strongholds along the Kuwaiti coast at Khifan and Fintas. He added that helicopters also apparently struck at a third Iraqi coastal position farther south after artillery batteries there fired across the border into the Saudi town of Khafji.

Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared to confirm this report at an early morning news conference in Washington. Asked about the shelling of Khafji, Powell told reporters: "We have silenced that."

Some Kuwait City residents said by phone said that they heard aircraft overhead several times today and that bombs appeared to have caused Iraqi casualties at military encampments on the outskirts of the city. In an interview with Cable News Network, a Kuwaiti identified as Ali Salem said from his home in Kuwait City that witnesses had told him of 20 to 30 Iraqi casualties.

Salem said red tracer bullets streaking skyward heralded the beginning of the attack about 3 a.m. "We heard explosions for about 10 minutes, then it disappeared," Salem said. About 11 a.m., Salem said, there was another raid on an Iraqi military position in which "there were about two explosions."

Salem said Kuwaiti guerrilla fighters had engaged Iraqi troops sporadically, describing "intermittent" machine-gun fire in the city, but that in general the streets were deserted.

Other Kuwaiti sources in exile said that Iraqi troops had arrested a number of young men in recent days, and one source said he had been told that as many as 2,000 Kuwaitis, including women and children, had been taken from their homes and transported to the Iraqi city of Basra. As with other reports reaching here from Kuwait, this could not be independently verified.

The Kuwaiti Skyhawks, which were flown to safety in Saudi Arabia on the second day of the Iraqi invasion in August, carried out two daylight bombing missions today, each involving 12 planes, Kuwaiti military sources said.

While the Kuwaitis went for their targets, U.S. Air Force F-111 and F-15E aircraft provided cover. "The sky was clear," said one source. "We're preparing for tomorrow," he added. "We're going after them again."