EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA, JAN. 19 -- Thousands of U.S. Marine and Army troops moved north toward Kuwait today in preparation for a possibly bloody and protracted ground offensive expected to be launched against Iraqi forces in the coming weeks.

Desert roadways throughout Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province were clogged around the clock with bumper-to-bumper convoys of trucks carrying troops, tanks, armored personnel carriers and equipment closer to the Iraqi ground forces entrenched across the Kuwaiti border.

"There are lots of dust clouds," said a Pentagon source in Washington. "Units are moving forward into position. . . . At some point . . . it will be possible for the conductor to call in the real percussion section of this orchestra to deliver the big bang."

In the first attacks on U.S. ground forces, front-line Iraqi troops sporadically have lobbed artillery rockets at U.S. Marines and allied forces camped near the Kuwaiti border for the last three nights. The rockets have injured four Marines and dug craters in the sand but caused little serious damage, according to Marine officials.

In addition to the rocket attacks, there were reports today of skirmishes between U.S. and Iraqi patrols along the heavily fortified Kuwaiti border, miles from the site of the artillery exchanges. The extent of the clashes was unclear, but they were thought to represent the first ground combat between Iraqi and American forces.

U.S. military officials said the first large-scale ground attacks against entrenched Iraqi troops are probably more than two weeks away, giving air forces time to attempt to cripple Iraqi troops, armor and supply lines, and ground troops time to move into offensive positions.

"We're on the way home now," said Sgt. Steve Brown, 23, a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, the first Army unit to reach Saudi Arabia last August. "We're just taking a detour through Iraq. It's finally time."

Senior military leaders said battles against Iraqi ground troops are carefully planned and will be launched with deliberation. "This is going to be a long campaign if need be," Marine Maj. Gen. Robert Johnston, the U.S. Central Command chief of staff, said today. "It will be done with great caution and professionalism and with the objective of minimizing our friendly casualties."

An Army officer in Washington said he expected any ground combat to be "down and dirty. . . .No one is rooting for the air campaign more than the Army, but we expect we will have to slug it out on the ground. {The Iraqi army} is one of the largest and best armies in the world, and it won't go down without a rather nasty fight."

In the northern Persian Gulf today, U.S. and Kuwaiti forces captured the first Iraqi prisoners of the three-day-old war in an attack on nine offshore oil platforms that had been used to fire missiles and antiaircraft guns at warplanes attacking Iraqi forces.

Marine military police were holding 12 Iraqis at a camp in Saudi Arabia until they could be moved to a Saudi-operated POW camp, while four more Iraqis were being treated for injuries at a U.S. military field hospital and the bodies of five Iraqis were recovered from the clash, officials said.

U.S. warplanes continued a frustrating aerial search for hidden Iraqi Scud missile launchers today, but extensive cloud cover in some parts of Iraq and Kuwait continued to thwart intelligence-gathering efforts and some bombing raids. Though the massive air assault continued against strategic Iraqi military targets, more emphasis began to be placed on bombing Iraq's elite Republican Guard forces northwest of Kuwait.

"We try to destroy any target that would cause us problems moving north" toward Kuwait City, said Maj. Randy Powell, the spokesman at a U.S. air base in the Saudi desert. "We're bombing all along the border against infantry positions. Their ground troops are being hit."

U.S. military officials said the weather is hampering efforts to locate mobile Scud launchers, bomb some targets and -- after 4,700 air missions -- provide accurate assessments of how many planes have hit their targets.

A new variant of the British Tornado fighter-bomber, the GR1-A, a low-level reconnaissance aircraft, located one mobile Scud position, which was attacked by other warplanes, British Defense Secretary Tom King said in London.

After three days of intensive air attacks, five American aircraft have been shot down, officials said, and nine crew members are missing in action.

One of the downed planes was an F-15E fighter returning from a mission for Col. Hal Hornsburg's fighter wing: "The pilot was coming off the target. He was seen. He made a radio call that he was coming off target and then, as the formation regrouped after hitting the target, and they checked in to make a roll call, he wasn't heard from."

Hornsburg said the air around the target was blistering with surface-to-air missiles and intense ground fire.

A sixth U.S. plane crashed in Saudi Arabia after running out of fuel, but its two crew members ejected safely and were rescued.

Four other allied airplanes have crashed since the operation began, authorities said.

As the fighters, bombers and electronic warfare planes streak over the Saudi Arabian skies, Army and Marine troops in the desert below are preparing for their role in Operation Desert Storm. In contrast with the high-technology air strikes, the ground assault is expected to be much bloodier and far less precise.

While carpet-bombing raids, cluster bombs and air fuel explosives that suck the oxygen from the lungs of their victims are expected to weaken the 540,000-man fighting force Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has amassed in and around Kuwait, many students of the Iran-Iraq war and veterans of the Vietnam War believe the deeply entrenched Iraqi forces cannot be driven out of Kuwait by air power alone.

"There could be some nasty surprises for the ground troops," said Capt. Robert La Police, 33, of Somerville, N.J., an officer with an Army engineering unit that could be called on to help breach Iraq's fortifications strung along the Kuwaiti border.

"It's probably going to be hand-to-hand combat up there," said Marine Cpl. John Steward, 21, of Rochester, N.Y., a member of the newly created Task Force Ripper, which will help spearhead the assault against the trenches, sand berms and mine fields. His squad leader, Sgt. John Marion, 24, from Carthage, N.C., added: "It's real scary. It's going into the unknown. You don't know what's waiting for you."

"It is getting scarier the closer we get," said Pfc. William Ryder, 20, of Fresno, Calif., as he and Lance Cpl. Bruce Mallard, 20, of Gainesville, Fla., stood watch during a cold night.

Both Marines belong to the Washington-based presidential guard unit normally stationed at the Marine barracks at 8th and I Streets SE. If engaged in combat, it would be the unit's first action since a 1906 campaign against Seminole Indians in Florida.

"We're the ones who do honor guards at Arlington National Cemetery," said Ryder. "This is about as far away as you can get from dress blues. We're just ordinary grunts wondering what happens next and expecting the worst."

More than 460,000 American forces and 250,000 other allied troops are now arrayed against Iraqi forces. Those most likely to engage in the heaviest ground combat, however, are among the 250,000 Army troops and the more than 85,000 Marines in the desert and aboard amphibious landing ships in the gulf.

Since the earliest hours of the air battle, the huge ground force has been chugging toward the Kuwaiti border across the desert sands and along jammed highways in military convoys that stretch from one horizon to the other.

But one of the most powerful armored units needed for the ground attack, the VII Corps based in Germany, is still assembling its equipment and troops and is days away from the front.

Across the desert, troops were performing last-minute rituals as they prepared for the potential of combat: getting a pre-battle haircut, writing a final letter to a wife, sealing personal mementos into an envelope to mail home, grabbing rosary beads from boxes set out by chaplains.

Near the front lines, Marines and allied forces have, for the past three nights, received but a scant preview of what may come, as Iraqi rockets jolted soldiers out of their sleep with dull thuds and pale yellow flares, forcing them to dive for cover in sandbag bunkers.

The rocket attacks have served as reminders that the Iraqi forces apparently remain determined to fight back. Four American troops were wounded, including one hit in the shoulder by shrapnel and another who broke his leg, officials said.

When U.S. electronic equipment has been able to trace the source of the Iraqi fire, Marine Cobra helicopter gunships and other attack aircraft have been dispatched.

Off the coast of Kuwait today, the guided missile frigate USS Nicholas, along with Army helicopters and a Kuwaiti patrol boat, attacked nine oil platforms from which shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft guns had been fired at allied warplanes, officials said.

The 12 Iraqi soldiers taken captive from the platforms were herded into a bunker at a Marine camp, where military police trained shotguns and M-16 rifles on them while other Marines moved among the captives demonstrating how to add water to the dehydrated fruit in the U.S. military's packaged field rations.

Although some Marines said the prisoners resisted as they were being led to the bunker, an Arab-speaking Marine interrogator described them as "docile."

"The screws and racks are a thing of the past," said the interrogator. "You can get anybody to break and get them to say whatever you want to hear. But you get a better response if you treat them humanely. We found that out in Vietnam."

U.S. warplanes from Turkish air base continued to bomb targets in Iraq.

Three Iraqi Scud missiles fell on Tel Aviv yesterday morning. Israeli authorities reported extensive property damage but only 10 injuries, none serious. U.S. Army air defense units armed with Patriot missiles to defend against Scuds arrived in Israel yesterday.

U.S. and allied aircraft flew more than 2,000 sorties yesterday raising the total number of missions to 4,700 in the first three days. Two more U.S. aircraft were lost yesterday, bringing the total number missing to six U.S. and four allied warplanes. At least nine American airmen are missing.

Allied warplanes hammered the elite Republican Guards, core of Iraq's military machine.

U.S. Marines came under Iraqi small arms and artillery fire. Artillery units from the U.S. VII Corps silenced an Iraqi SAM missile site.

Frigate USS Nicholas and Army helicopters captured nine Kuwaiti oil platforms from Iraqi troops. Twelve prisoners were taken.

Targets hit in Iraq, according to early reports from U.S. and allied sources.

Military air bases

Nuclear, chemical, biological weapons facilities

Conventional weapons facilities

Oil refineries

Ballistic missile launching sites.


Current troop strength is about 460,000.

More the 1,800 U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine aircraft are operating in the theater.

The U.S. fleet in the region totals over 100 ships, including six aircraft carriers, two battleships, dozens of cruisers, destroyers and frigates, and a large amphibious force.


Currecnt troop strength in Kuwaiti theater is more than 545,000. Total Iraqi forces number 555,000 regular trooops and 480,000 reserves, all believed to be mobilized.

Regular forces include an estimated 110,000 to 120,000 elite Republican Guards.

Iraq reportedly had 300 to 1,000 Scud missiles and 50 Scud launchers befor the war began.