FORT RILEY, KAN., SEPT. 12 -- At 3 p.m. on Feb. 24, Col. Lon Maggart formed two tank battalions into four columns each and advanced to breach the "Saddam Line."

Eight M-1A1 tanks, equipped with enormous saw-toothed plows, punched simultaneously through the sand berms and trenches at the southwest corner of Iraq's defensive perimeter. Then they turned to their flanks to face the infantrymen in the trenches they had just crossed.

Exactly as they had rehearsed, the tank plows and armored earthmovers resumed work. They buried the Iraqis where they squatted, collapsing walls of their trenches and heaping great volumes of sand upon their heads.

Some of the Iraqis were dead before they were buried. Some were not.

Today, members of the 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized) reacted with bafflement and pique to a sudden flood of inquiries about a tactic they proudly invented. Though mentioned in earlier post-war accounts of the battle, the gruesome image made a new splash Thursday in a Newsday story headlined "Buried Alive" in inch-high type and reprinted in other papers including The Washington Post.

"Burying people alive doesn't sound very nice, as if being burned alive in a tank does, or being bayoneted or grenaded does," Maggart said in an interview today at division headquarters here. "It's fascinating to me what grabs the American public. Most people don't realize, I think, how violent ground combat is."

Though their predominant theme today was gritty realism -- "I don't mean to be flippant, but there's no nice way to kill somebody in a war," Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said in his regular briefing in Washington -- officials also asserted that a majority of the dug-in Iraqis surrendered.

As for the Persian Gulf War as a whole, they said they could still not provide accurate numbers of dead.

In some ways, today's flurry of attention suggested a cultural gap between laymen and professional warriors. Officers interviewed here shook their heads and smiled at the naivete they perceived in questions from reporters around the country over the fairness of the fight with the Iraqis.

Their guiding purpose, they said, in every move they made before and during the war -- deception, surprise, the massing of allied strength against Iraqi weakness -- was to ensure that the contest would be unequal.

"It really bugs me that this has turned into a big national expose all of a sudden, that the Army killed Iraqis," said Maj. Bill McCormick, a division spokesman who led a press pool through the breach in Iraqi lines about an hour after it took place. "Would it have been better if we had dismounted {from armored vehicles} and gone into the trenches with our rifles and bayonets and taken probably hundreds of American casualties?"

The light Iraqi forces facing Maggart -- the 110th Brigade of the 26th Iraqi Infantry Division -- had only four T-55 tanks. Their rifles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) had virtually no effect on the heavy armor of Maggart's 1st Brigade.

Inside Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Maggart's troops took no casualties during the breach, and Maggart said they easily could have kept on moving.

But Maggart's job was to punch a hole for hundreds of "soft-skinned" vehicles to follow, the supply train of his and the British 1st Armoured Division. He could not, he said, simply leave the Iraqis hunkered down.

"If we did not clear every trench line, imagine a lone Iraqi soldier with an RPG launching at a 5,000-gallon fuel truck," he said.

Well-entrenched enemy soldiers cannot normally be defeated without attacking troops dismounting from their vehicles to engage. But Maggart and Col. Anthony Moreno, his counterpart in the division's 2nd Brigade, decided to depart from standard doctrine when they grasped the opportunity presented by the desert's shifting sands.

Lt. Col. Stephen Hawkins, the 1st Division's engineer, designed two full-scale replicas of the Iraqi defenses east of Hafr al Batin in Saudi Arabia before the ground war began, and the division experimented with breaching and burial techniques.

The one adopted by Maggart's brigade sent either an M-1A1 tank with a plow or an M-9 armored combat engineer vehicle along each side of a trench line that was three feet deep and three feet across. Flanking the plows, a Bradley on each side directed heavy fields of fire into the trenches using 7.62mm machine guns and 25mm cannon.

The Bradley fire, Maggart said, "kept everybody's head down" as the plows collapsed the trench walls across an area about 10 miles wide.

Asked what opportunity there was for Iraqi infantrymen pinned down by covering fire to flee or surrender before they were buried, Maggart said many had done so. Most could see the plows coming before they were taken under fire, he said, and others waved white flags or used hand gestures of submission.

Maggart said the dug-in Iraqis in fact had more opportunity to surrender than many who died in the war because they were engaged at close quarters in daylight.

Iraqi armored vehicles, by contrast, were often destroyed with thermally sighted weapons before they saw American vehicles coming.

"They had an option to give up," he said. "If {Iraqis} were in a tank crew or a BMP {armored personnel carrier} crew, they didn't have that option. If they were struck by artillery, they didn't have that option. If they were struck by aircraft they didn't have that option. Here they had an option."

Said McCormick: "In most cases they came out of those trenches really quick, with their hands up."

But by the time the juggernaut reached them, McCormick said, "their time to surrender had passed."

Maggart said his brigade did not make loudspeaker appeals for surrender, as it did later in the four-day ground war, because at the outset of the offensive he feared chemical attack and time was at a premium.

"That is the whole point to this story," Maggart said. "I put my guys through the most critical point on the battlefield and it took only 29 minutes. . . . Given the option of having my guys shot and blown up, I will tell you I would do it this way every time."