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Saudi Town Reclaimed

By Caryle Murphy and Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 1, 1991; Page A01

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ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF KHAFJI, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 31—A fierce battle for this deserted coastal town ended today when forces from Saudi Arabia and the emirate of Qatar, backed by American artillery and air strikes, evicted Iraqi troops and tanks, and freed two trapped U.S. Marine reconnaissance teams.

The 12 Marines had been trapped in Khafji since Tuesday night when the town was overrun by about 400 to 600 Iraqi troops and 40 to 45 tanks in the first major ground action of the Persian Gulf War. One Marine, who asked not to be identified, said the Iraqi advance was so swift that the first sign he saw of it was a helmet of an Iraqi soldier showing above an approaching armored personnel carrier, with machine gun at the ready.

"I looked down from my sights and all I saw was the helmet, then the shoulders, then the .50-caliber machine gun," the Marine said. "I hit the ground and grabbed my alice {backpack}, then crawled to my 'humvee' {military vehicle}."

The Iraqis opened fire as the Marines sped south into Khafji. Five tank shells missed.

Two six-man Marine reconnaissance teams had been conducting "routine intelligence gathering," and "by the time they determined they were surrounded {by the Iraqis}, it was too late" to leave, said Marine Col. John Admire, a task force commander in the area.

The 12 trapped Marines hid in the upper floors of buildings, survived on the little food they had brought with them, burned secret codes and other classified material, and used encrypted radios to signal their locations and even call in artillery fire on Iraqi positions.

Twice, Admire said, the Iraqis entered the lower floors of buildings the men were hiding in. "The Marines could hear the footsteps," the colonel said. "They could hear them enter -- and then leave."

The men were extracted from the town around noon today, during the fight to reclaim Khafji. "They looked real tired and relieved to see us, they looked real worn out," said Marine Capt John Borth. One of the Marines had suffered a slight shrapnel wound in the thigh.

The U.S. military provided no information on fatalities in today's fighting, but in Washington a Saudi source said 12 Saudis and 28 Iraqis had been killed, and the Associated Press quoted the top Saudi commander, Gen. Khalid Bin Sultan, as saying the Iraqis suffered 200 dead. Reports on Iraqi prisoners ranged from 161 to slightly more than 400.

The government of President Saddam Hussein had hailed the brief capture of Khafji by Iraqi troops as "the beginning and omen of the thundering storm that will blow on the Arabian desert." But the commander of U.S. forces, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, told Cable News Network today that the fight in Khafji was "as significant as a mosquito on an elephant."

The departure of Iraqi forces from Khafji this afternoon came after Marines had repelled two other Iraqi incursions across the Kuwaiti border about 50 miles west of Khafji. U.S. military command spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Stevens IV said 22 tanks were "apparently destroyed" in the two western clashes.

In Khafji, preliminary Marine reports said allies destroyed another 17 tanks and armored vehicles in fighting in the city. Marine Commander Lt. Gen. Walter Boomer also said Marine aviators destroyed 15 more Iraqi vehicles as they retreated from Khafji northward into Kuwait.

Despite the apparent hit-and-run nature of the attacks this week, allied leaders were alert to the possibility that Iraq may be preparing a large-scale offensive, possibly to involve several divisions of armored troops. Boomer said in an interview that U.S. forces were observing "a lot of movement" among the Iraqis "in the last few days. We're watching very carefully to see if we can discern what he {Saddam} might try to do."

Stevens said 11 Marines had died in the western incursions and another two were wounded, correcting a figure of 12 fatalities issued by military authorities Wednesday.

Stevens said there were no reports of U.S. casualties in Khafji, but acknowledged that a man and a woman soldier were "missing" on a transport mission on a road just south of the town.

The report of the missing soldiers coincided with an Iraqi news agency dispatch claiming that Iraqi forces in Khafji captured "female U.S. soldiers" who "are being treated well by the Iraqi fighters in accordance with the traditional treatment of prisoners."

Baghdad Radio, which now calls itself the Mother of Battles Radio, quoted an Iraqi soldier as saying, "We expelled the Americans from the Arab territory. . . . Our heroic forces attacked the treacherous enemy . . . and they fled like mice."

In fact, however, the burden of ground combat in Khafji was borne almost entirely by Saudi and Qatari troops and tanks, who mounted two long counterattacks just before midnight Wednesday and again this morning. The last attack apparently succeeded in forcing the Iraqi withdrawal, confirmed in the late afternoon.

The Saudi and Qatari counterattacks also provided cover for the extraction of the two trapped Marine reconnaissance teams.

"As far as I am concerned, the decisive reason for the Saudis making the attack was because those two teams were there," said Lt. Col. John Garrett, 43, commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Marine Regiment, who supervised the rescue from a mobile command post set up in humvees about five miles southwest of Khafji. "They said if there was need to extract the teams, they were willing. They said, 'Let's go.' "

The incursions in Khafji and in the west were the culmination of a week's worth of mutual probing and harassment by Marines and Iraqi forces. The Iraqis are entrenched behind layers of minefields, barbed wire and fortifications in occupied Kuwait, while the Marines have been moving ever closer to the northern Saudi border, occupying forward positions in anticipation of a future ground offensive.

Between the two forces is about 20 miles of desert, a desolate stretch of no man's land where commandos and rival artillerymen have been carrying out near nightly artillery raids and spying maneuvers to test each other's defenses.

There was some suggestion that an Iraqi commando raid may have caused the disappearance of the two soldiers from a vehicle driving along Tapline Road, a small highway running east to west about 15 miles south of the Kuwaiti border. Stevens was reluctant to discuss the incident but said the missing pair were "not involved in the fighting at al-Khafji or elsewhere along the border."

In the context of cross-border thrust and counterthrust, the Khafji attack, according to Stevens, was "a reconnaissance in force." He described the size of the Iraqi incursion there as "company plus, battalion minus" -- about 400 to 600 men, with accompanying tanks and armored vehicles. Col. Admire said the Iraqis had 40 to 45 tanks in Khafji.

Despite Saudi claims to have retaken Khafji by mid-afternoon today, U.S. Marine officers reported enduring "pockets of resistance" in the town even at 6:30 p.m. The officers said small-arms fire continued sporadically into the evening, and suggested that the Iraqis still had one artillery battery firing from inside the city.

Marine commanders explained that Saudi forces had responsibility for the defense of the border area around Khafji, a town of 45,000 people on the Persian Gulf about six miles south of the Kuwait frontier. The town has been largely abandoned since the war began Jan. 17, its buildings policed and defended by a token garrison of Saudi marines. These retreated beyond the city limits when the Iraqi tanks entered the town -- a good strategy, Boomer said, since Khafji had no military value. "I would have done the same thing the Saudis did," he said. "I wouldn't have tried to hold it."

Still, as the coalition country with what the military calls primary sector responsibility, it fell to the Saudis to fight the battle of Khafji and drive the Iraqis out. This they did with the help of tanks from the tiny Qatari army.

The U.S. Marines provided artillery support and air strikes from Cobra gunships, but did not participate in the on-again, off-again ground battle, an occasionally tense confrontation involving close-quarters encounters between tanks and troops in the middle of town. Khafji, a sprawling, low-to-the-ground stucco and cement community, has plenty of open space and wide, modern boulevards ready-made for tank maneuvers.

Late Wednesday night -- more than 24 hours after the initial Iraqi incursion -- a Saudi tank unit moved into position just south of Khafji, originally intending to serve as a blocking force in case the Iraqis chose to move out of the town, and to provide additional artillery support.

But Marine Lt. Col. Garrett, supervising Marine fire teams supporting the Saudi counter-strikes, met with the U.S. officer serving as liaison with the Saudi and Qatari forces, who checked with Admire and called a meeting to see if the Marine reconnaissance teams could be extracted using a Saudi tank attack as cover.

"We were all there, and the Saudis were there, and everyone was figuring out everyone's language when all of a sudden there was a chemical warfare alert," Garrett said today. "We were putting on these suits like the Michelin man and having to do all this at the same time."

The Saudis embraced the strategy, Garrett said, and probed the Iraqi strong points shortly before midnight. Fighting continued until 4 a.m., he said, when the Saudis broke off the action, withdrew and regrouped.

At 7:20 a.m. the Saudis and Qataris reentered the town and stayed there. The Saudis picked up the first reconnaissance team at 11:30 a.m. and the second one about an hour later, handing both over to Marines waiting for them.

A U.S. official in Washington said additional Iraqi forces in Kuwait had tried to rescue their fellow soldiers in Khafji. "Their links back to Kuwait were cut off by U.S. and allied air power," he told staff writer R. Jeffrey Smith. "Then they were surrounded, and when additional forces tried to come down and extricate them, they got pounded by our artillery."

The subsequent isolation of the Iraqi troops in Khafji enabled Saudi forces to kill many and force others to capitulate, the official said on condition of anonymity. "A substantial portion of the armored units that tried to pull them out was destroyed," he added.

As the day wore on, the Saudi-Qatari forces brought up extra tanks and armored personnel carriers for the final push against Khafji. As the Iraqis fell back, the road into town was clogged with Saudi and Qatari vehicles, their jubilant crews waving from the turrets and cheering the first victorious ground action of the war.

{Reporters in Khafji early Friday saw streets lined with Iraqi armored personnel carriers, smashed and gutted by anti-tank missiles, with dead Iraqi crews inside, the AP said.}

This article included information derived from press pool reports.

© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post

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