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Allies Surround Republican Guard, Say Crippled Iraqis Are Near Defeat

By Rick Atkinson and William Claiborne
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 27, 1991; Page A01

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Allied forces, in a swift and stunning rout, yesterday completed their encirclement of Iraq's reeling army and began a systematic destruction of all forces that refuse to surrender, U.S. officials said.

As American soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division occupied Highway 8 in the Euphrates River Valley, effectively severing supply lines and escape routes from southeastern Iraq, about 1,200 tanks of the U.S. VII Corps slammed into the first of eight Republican Guard divisions at dusk yesterday in a battle Pentagon officials said was developing into a brutal and climactic last act in the Persian Gulf War.

The fierce allied ground offensive, in concert with six weeks of relentless bombing, has destroyed or crippled 21 of Iraq's 42 combat divisions in the Kuwaiti theater, U.S. officials said. Iraq has lost 2,085 tanks and 1,005 artillery guns, roughly half the number the Iraqi army of occupation had when the war began Jan. 17. U.S. combat losses remained astonishingly light -- with only four killed and 21 wounded since the start of the ground war Sunday, exclusive of Monday night's devastating Scud attack on a barracks in Saudi Arabia -- and officials said they had stopped counting enemy prisoners captured after the number exceeded 30,000.

"The war is not over," Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal said yesterday, "and we're going to continue to attack and attack and attack." Those orders were executed with alacrity by allied pilots, who swarmed over Iraqi armor and truck columns, slaughtering the scattering vehicles by the score in a combat frenzy variously described as "a turkey shoot" and "shooting fish in a barrel."

The third day of the ground campaign unfolded as an indignant President Bush forcefully rejected a statement by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who announced the withdrawal of his shattered army because of "special circumstances." The Iraqi leader spoke of a "dignified" victory even in retreat and, while declaring Kuwait was no longer part of Iraq, refused to renounce fully his country's claim to the emirate.

"Saddam's most recent speech is an outrage," Bush declared in the White House Rose Garden. "He is not withdrawing. His defeated forces are retreating. He is trying to claim victory in the midst of a rout."

Accusing the Iraqi leader of trying "to regroup and fight another day," Bush ordered the allied campaign to continue "with undiminished intensity." He upbraided Saddam for "the pathological destruction of Kuwait," for failing to renounce Iraq's territorial claim to the tiny emirate and for again rebuffing U.N. Security Council resolutions.

"The liberation of Kuwait is close at hand," the president promised, and evidence from the war zone appeared to confirm his optimism.

{Iraqi forces completed their withdrawal of Kuwait, Baghdad radio announced early Wednesday morning, according to a radio report monitored by the Iranian news agency in Cyprus.}

Jubilant Kuwaitis proclaimed the liberation of their capital city, although Pentagon officials said exhausted U.S. Marines and Kuwaiti armored units on the city's outskirts would wait until dawn today to probe further, a caution provoked by concern for booby traps and reports of three Iraqi special forces brigades still in the city.

Escorted by Kuwaiti resistance leaders, U.S. special forces soldiers slipped across the battered city to the U.S. Embassy compound, but decided not to enter yet because of potential mines and booby traps. They inspected the largely abandoned downtown area and were cheered by city residents along the way.

An intense tank battle involving the 1st Marine Division at the Kuwait International Airport subsided last night, while the 2nd Marine Division occupied high ground and a smaller airport at the west end of Kuwait Bay, cutting escape routes from the capital, according to Marine Corps officials. The Marines had destroyed 100 Iraqi tanks during a swift, day-long advance of nearly 50 miles and had lost no tanks or armored vehicles themselves, according to pool reports.

As coalition governments made plans to raise their national flags over their respective embassies in Kuwait City as a symbolic and triumphant gesture, the exiled emir of Kuwait declared martial law for three months and appointed a military governor. That announcement followed unconfirmed reports that retreating Iraqi soldiers had kidnapped thousands of Kuwaiti citizens and blown up the country's National Assembly building, banks and hotels.Republican Guard Retreats

The VII Corps attack came after a blitzkrieg-style dash across 150 miles of desert from a series of secret bases in western Saudi Arabia. A force of more than 100,000 soldiers -- including the 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions, 2nd, 3rd and 12th Armored Cavalry Regiments, 24th Mechanized Infantry Division, and British 1st Armored Division -- swept across the desert through pelting rain and stiff winds, paused long enough to collect itself and then smashed into the Republican Guard in a battle expected to rage through the night, a senior Pentagon official said.

Badly battered by 41 days of allied bombing and devoid of Iraqi air power, some of the Republican Guard units initially emerged from their fortifications to confront the attackers but then retreated to their defensive positions. "There's a certain element of confusion right now," Rear Adm. Mike McConnell, intelligence director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the Pentagon. "They're sensing the battlefield, and they're finding pressure from all sides."

Pilots told pool reporters that no coherent plan was evident in the Iraqi movements. The Iraqis "are trying to conduct some kind of strategic withdrawal," said Capt. Gary Stahlhut of the VII Corps' 2nd Military Intelligence Battalion.

Four Republican Guard infantry divisions are arrayed below Basra, with two armored divisions and a particularly air-battered mechanized infantry division south of those units; a guard special forces division also is in the area. U.S. forces appeared to be engaging the units separately, reportedly mauling at least two divisions yesterday.

As part of the campaign, the 2nd Armored Cavalry in an intense daylight battle yesterday "chewed up" an Iraqi tank division -- reports conflicted over whether it belonged to the Republican Guard or a regular Iraqi corps -- with Apache gunships, M1-A1 tanks and soldiers charging into battle inside Bradley Fighting Vehicles, a Pentagon official said last night. In a separate engagement, the 3rd Armored and 1st Infantry Division defeated a second Iraqi tank division.

In a third episode, soldiers from the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division intercepted 50 top-of-the-line Iraqi T-72 tanks fleeing toward the Euphrates from a base near Basra. "I don't know where they felt they were going," the official said. "I guess they were just trying to get out of the way."

Although initial reports suggested the Republican Guard soldiers were willing to fight, "it remains to be seen" whether the titanic tank battle long predicted will materialize, Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, operations director of the Joint Chiefs, said at a Defense Department briefing. Another senior officer added: "From what we've seen so far, we've enjoyed great success against them. I don't think it's nearly the fight that we thought it would be.

"The only concern any of us have is the weather. It's crappy," the official said. Commanders worried that limited visibility would restrict some close air support and that high winds would hamper helicopter gunships and troop carriers. To protect vital supply bases in Iraq, the Army deployed two brigades from the 82nd Airborne Division as depot guards.

Senior officials expressed confidence and elation that "the noose has been tightened" around Iraq's army so effectively, as one general put it, that escape is impossible. "There are no major bridges across the Euphrates left. I don't know whether there are any small bridges, but I'd say there are only very small and limited numbers of equipment going to Basra or anywhere farther north," the general added.

Military leaders also expressed satisfaction that Bush had refused Saddam's withdrawal gambit. Neal, briefing reporters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, tartly drew a distinction between withdrawal ("when you pull your forces back, not under pressure by the attacking forces") and retreat (a pullback "required by action of the attacking forces"). "The Iraqi army is in full retreat," he said. Other officers echoed Bush in saying unarmed, retreating Iraqi soldiers would not be harmed, but justified the continued pounding of armed units as prudent and necessary given Iraq's refusal to surrender.

"When you have an enemy on the run, the best thing to do is keep the pressure on because you minimize your casualties and bring the battle to a close that much sooner," a senior general said. Commanders often have used a "slap and hug" approach to encourage surrenders by intensely bombarding Iraqi forces, then pausing long enough to broadcast appeals for the enemy soldiers to give themselves up.

During the early weeks of Operation Desert Storm, military officers often spoke of their desire to use a ground offensive as a prod to provoke entrenched Iraqi tank forces into the open where aircraft could destroy them. Almost immediately this week, the strategy bore fruit.

"We've been looking for tanks since the war started," Air Force Capt. Eric Salomonson, 28, of Berthoud Colo., pilot of an A-10 "Warthog" tank-killing attack fighter, told pool reporters. "Yesterday, we found a bunch."

Salomonson and his wingman, 1st Lt. John Marks, 26, of Kansas City, Mo., were credited with a record 23 tank kills between them in three missions Monday in Iraq and Kuwait.Tanks Became 'White Hot'

"We had a report from a night squadron that they had discovered a lot of Iraqi tanks on the move," Salomonson said. "We launched out of here, didn't quite know what we were going to see, so we got up there about sunup, and sure enough there's tanks all over. We found them . . . and had tanks burning in five minutes."

On their first raid, each pilot targeted and killed four tanks, all of them belonging to the Iraqi Republican Guard, with Maverick missiles. In two subsequent raids in Kuwait, they hit 19 other tanks.

"There's just nothing like it," Salomonson said. "It's the biggest Fourth of July show you've ever seen, and to see those tanks just 'boom,' and more stuff just keep spewing out of them and shells flying out to the ground, they just became white hot. It's wonderful."

With the Iraqi withdrawal that began late Monday, the targets became even more plentiful as Iraqi tanks, armored vehicles, trucks and troops clogged two main highways leading north from Kuwait City to Basra. B-52s dropped 1,000-pound bombs, and attack aircraft pummeled the enemy with cluster bombs and missiles.

"This morning it was bumper-to-bumper," said Navy Lt. Brian Kasperbauer, 30, of Guam, the pilot of an A-6 Intruder aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger. "It was the road to Daytona Beach at spring break . . . and spring break's over."

Kasperbauer told combat pool reporters he and his fellow pilots stalked the Iraqi vehicles above cloud cover, then swooped low to rake the enemy with anti-armor and anti-personnel Rockeye cluster bombs.

"Right about here we toasted him, pulled off, jinked off this way to the west to give him {my bombardier} time to set up for the next one," Kasperbauer said. "We were just like serpentining down the road with our three bombing runs. We hit here, and hit here, and circled around and hit here."

The Ranger extended the nightfighting A-6's operating time well into daylight yesterday to put more planes in the air, so many that pilots leaving pre-flight briefings had to get fresh instructions as they walked to their planes. Ammunition elevators were worked so hard that some pilots loaded whatever ordnance came immediately to hand. Loudspeakers hailed each launch with Rossini's "William Tell Overture," the ship's theme song.

"We hit the jackpot," said Lt. Armando Segarra, 26, of Floral Park, N.Y.

British commanders yesterday gave a detailed account of how their 1st Armored Division, under tactical command of the U.S. VII Corps, overwhelmed Iraqi defenses west of Kuwait and routed an enemy armored division, destroying 40 tanks and taking at least 600 prisoners; the British reported only seven casualties.

British Army Col. Barry Stevens said the division's artillery joined American guns on the afternoon of "G-Day," Feb. 24, hurling 1,100 tons of explosives in 30 minutes at a narrow point along the "Saddam line" fortifications.

An American division -- U.S. officials said it was the 1st Infantry Division from Fort Riley, Kan. -- cut eight lanes through an obstacle belt of barbed wire and mines, and the British shoved 2,500 armored vehicles and several thousand trucks through the breach. Led by scouts, divisional artillery and armored brigades, the British unit fell on an Iraqi armored division and fought through the night, maneuvering rapidly and using thermal sights to locate and destroy enemy positions.

Stevens said the division captured an Iraqi brigade commander -- presumably a colonel -- and induced a battalion commander to surrender his entire unit. "It was a case of, 'Thank goodness for that, hands up, for me the war is over,' " Stevens said.

Describing action by U.S. Marines over the past two days, an officer in Washington said the 1st Marine Division on Monday fought a pitched battle against at least one Iraqi armored brigade at the Burgan oil field south of Kuwait City. Fighting was close enough for the Marines to use their artillery for "direct fire" -- essentially point blank without trajectory. More than 300 Iraqis were killed, compared to a dozen Marines wounded, the officer said.

Several dozen helicopters from the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit also staged a helicopter assault feint from their ships in the Persian Gulf. "They went flying toward the coast of Kuwait, then turned around and came back," the Marine officer said.

In announcing his army's withdrawal from Kuwait in an address broadcast yesterday on Baghdad Radio, Saddam urged his people: "Shout for victory, Oh brothers! . . . . You have fought 30 countries and all the evil and the largest machine of war and destruction in the world that surrounds them. . . . Those evil-doers persisted in their path and methods, thinking that they can impose their will on Iraq."

A later broadcast said Saddam had visited his 1st Army Corps, believed to be in southwestern Iraq, for briefings on military preparations to "repel any aggressive attempt at undermining . . . Iraq." The broadcast was a reminder that even with the destruction of Saddam's 545,000-man force and its equipment in or around Kuwait, the Iraqi leader would still retain an estimated half-million soldiers under arms, including a dozen divisions on the Turkish border, a half-dozen facing Syria and five more in the Iraqi southwest. A tally by the Associated Press yesterday indicated that if Saddam lost everything in Kuwait, he would still own an arsenal -- albeit of generally inferior quality -- of 1,300 tanks, 3,200 armored personnel carriers and 2,000 artillery guns.

The radio broadcast also complained that "the enemy is still interfering in the withdrawal of our forces. . . . This cowardly act exposes {the allies'} mean attitude."

At the United Nations, efforts to turn Iraq's withdrawal offer into a cease-fire stalled yesterday in the face of Baghdad's reluctance to accede to all 12 U.N. resolutions dealing with the Aug. 2 occupation of Kuwait. Even the Soviet Union, whose alliance with the United States has been strained by Moscow's advocacy of a cease-fire, agreed yesterday that Saddam's withdrawal announcement by itself was insufficient to halt the fighting.600 Kuwaiti Oil Wells Burning

Enormous clouds of black smoke cloaked much of Kuwait, the result of more than 600 oil well fires set by retreating Iraqi troops. The Iraqis also blew up refineries, storage tank farms and other government buildings, further devastating the Kuwaiti landscape. McConnell, the Joint Chiefs' intelligence director, said captured documents showed that Iraqi corps commanders were issued orders on Jan. 17 -- general instructions on how to fight the battle -- that specified destroying the oil fields and inflicting maximum casualties.

On the highway leading from Saudi Arabia to Kuwait City, combat pool reporters described a grim desert moonscape littered with burned out tanks, unexploded bombs, twisted snarls of barbed wire and an assortment of abandoned vehicles, shell casings and trash, all of it twilit beneath the billowing smudge-pot smoke and flames of burning wellheads.

Road signs were flattened and gas stations blown apart. Power pylons and telephone poles littered the roadside like felled trees, and oil pipelines lay in tangles, relics of the Iraqis' reported attempts to set the roads afire with blazing oil. Shops, businesses and houses for 30 miles leading into Kuwait had been looted and burned.

Atkinson reported from Washington, Claiborne from Saudi Arabia. Staff writers Barton Gellman, Guy Gugliotta, R. Jeffrey Smith and staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post Company

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