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Allies Battle for Saudi Town : Enemy Air Force No Longer a Factor: Schwarzkopf : Gulf War: Coalition troops push to recapture Khafji after first major Iraqi ground assault. U.S. air strikes, gunfire destroy 24 tanks. Twelve Marines are killed.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Allied forces led by Saudi troops tried early today to recapture the Saudi town of Khafji after the first major Iraqi ground assault of the Persian Gulf War, a “hellacious” battle that began in the eerie glare of a full moon and took the lives of 12 Marines--the first U.S. ground troops killed in action.

The liberation drive began at 11 p.m. Wednesday, Saudi time. By early today, it was still unclear whether the allies had taken back the town or were driven off by Iraqi forces. Khafji had been in enemy hands for at least a full day. It was the first time Iraqis had captured Saudi territory since the war started.

After 15 minutes of heavy Marine artillery fire to soften up the Iraqi defenses, dozens of Saudi light armored personnel carriers, along with MAX-30 tanks from the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, roared toward the center of the town. Some Saudi forces made it--but others, including some U.S. Marines, were forced into a hasty retreat when they were pelted by Iraqi rocket fire.

They regrouped and attacked again, and the Marines opened an artillery barrage on the holdout neighborhood, where the Iraqis were still said to be lurking in buildings.

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Deserted since the beginning of the war, Khafji was occupied Wednesday by an estimated 50 to 150 Iraqis. U.S. troops said allied forces would fight until they won it back. “If they control the town for the moment, it’s only going to be for the moment,” said Marine Lt. Michael Ragoza, a platoon commander. Marine Maj. Craig Huddleston said, “They probably ought to call 911 right now.”

The Iraqis began their ground assault Tuesday night in the northeast corner of Saudi Arabia. Under the full moon and flares that flashed with white light, they advanced with about 1,500 troops and 50 tanks in four attacks stretching from the shore of the Persian Gulf to about 25 miles west into the Saudi desert. Air strikes and ground fire beat virtually all of them back and destroyed about half their tanks. The fighting lasted through Tuesday night and into Wednesday.

Marine Lt. Col. Cliff Myers used one word to sum it up: “Hellacious.”

In addition to the 12 Marines who were killed, at least two others were wounded, and two U.S. soldiers were trapped by Iraqi fire. A daring effort to rescue them was unsuccessful; their fate was not immediately known. Staff officers of the 1st Marine Division said U.S. forces lost two armored vehicles.

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The U.S. Command in Riyadh said Iraqi casualties were heavy but gave no count. U.S. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of allied forces, said 24 Iraqi tanks were destroyed, along with 13 other vehicles. First Marine Division staff officers put the toll of Iraqi tanks at 25.

In Washington, U.S. officials tried to downplay the significance of the fighting.

“The (Iraqi) incursion . . . did not represent the start of a ground war,” said President Bush’s spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater. He said the President was “very saddened” by the deaths of the Marines.

At the Pentagon, one operations officer who declined to be identified said news reporters were “making too big a deal” of the 12 Marine dead.

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“The Iraqis lost up to 500,” the officer said. “We waxed them.”

One senior Army officer said, however, that Khafji should not have been lost, even briefly. The initially unopposed incursion, he said, was the result of an “obvious oversight” on somebody’s part. In Riyadh, Schwarzkopf said Khafji fell because it had been abandoned on the first day of the war, “so there was no one there.”

But the senior officer at the Pentagon said: “The Iraqis shouldn’t have been in a position that they could waltz into that town, even if it was uninhabited.”

Schwarzkopf, as well as soldiers in the field, theorized that the Iraqi attack might have been a preemptive strike to avoid still another day of punishing artillery bombardment from forward Marine positions. Others said the attack might have been an attempt to draw allied troops into a ground battle before they were ready.

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Whatever its design, Iraq opened its assault with what Schwarzkopf said “was estimated to be an Iraqi mechanized battalion.” It crossed the Saudi border from Kuwait on Tuesday evening, he said.

As the Iraqis rolled, Baghdad Radio broadcast a war cry.

“O Iraqis! O Arabs! O Muslims who believe in justice! Your faithful and courageous ground forces have moved to teach the aggressors the lessons they deserve!

“They have launched their lightning land attack, bearing high the banner, saying God is great, and crushed the armies of atheism as they advance, routing those who could run away while cursing the infidels and heathens!

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“Our units advanced on the battlefield approximately 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) into the battlefield where the enemy in the Saudi kingdom of evil is found!”

The Iraqi battalion was engaged by a Marine light armored infantry battalion and tactical air forces, Schwarzkopf said. “The result: 10 Iraqi tanks destroyed, four enemy prisoners . . . and the Marines lost two light armored vehicles.”

It was in this first Iraqi attack, on the Saudi Arabian border southwest of the Kuwaiti town of Wafra, that the 12 U.S. marines lost their lives, Schwarzkopf said.

Not long afterward, he said, another Iraqi battalion crossed the border.

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These were again engaged by U.S. warplanes and tank-fighting helicopters, he said. At one point, it was reported that Iraqi tank crews rolled their T-55s up to the border and signaled that they wanted to surrender.

The report came from Huddleston, the Marine major.

“They (the Iraqis) reversed their turrets, put their main gun in lock and quit,” Huddleston told pool reporters. He said he warned his men not to presume that the tanks had innocent intentions.

“We’ve got to play this close to the vest,” he said. “We don’t want to blow this one.”

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And, sure enough, he said, barely 10 minutes later, he got a report over his radio.

“They have engaged Saudi forces in combat,” Huddleston said. “And we’re going to kill them.”

Schwarzkopf said: “We destroyed four tanks and 13 (Iraqi) vehicles.”

It was this attack, Schwarzkopf said, that captured the town of Khafji.

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“We have reports that the Iraqis . . . did go into Al Khafji,” he said. “Of course, as you know, Al Khafji has been abandoned and deserted since the very first day . . . so there was no one there.”

It was in this early attack on Khafji that the two American soldiers were trapped.

They were driving through the town with another Army vehicle when they took a wrong turn and wound up in the middle of the fighting.

One of the vehicles escaped, but the other crashed into a wall.

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Marines quickly organized a rescue mission, Huddleston said. “We wanted to get them pretty bad.” They located the wrecked vehicle. The wheels were still spinning. But the passenger door was open and there was no sign of the two soldiers.

Then, early Wednesday morning, Schwarzkopf said, Iraqi tanks and troops crossed the border a third time.

“This time, they were initially engaged by the Saudi Arabian National Guard,” the general said, “and then Marine tac-air (tactical aircraft) engaged them, and the enemy withdrew.”

Baghdad Radio had a special broadcast for the Saudis.

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“O people in the kingdom of the Saudis,” the radio said, “we do not covet your land. We are your brothers, and you are our brothers. . . .

“Our entry into your land is not occupation, but it is made necessary by the circumstances of the fight against the armies of atheism and aggression that have turned your land into a base for aggression.”

The fourth Iraqi assault came later Wednesday morning.

“Forty more Iraqi tanks crossed the border at the same place,” Schwarzkopf said. “They were once again engaged by the Marine light attack--light armored infantry. This time the result was 10 enemy tanks destroyed. And they (allied forces) captured nine enemy prisoners of war.”

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That left only Khafji to liberate.

“I hope they keep attacking us, the dumb ----s,” said Lt. Col. Larry Humble, a member of the 1st Marine Division.

He pledged more of the same: TOW missiles. Marine batteries of 155-millimeter howitzers. Helicopter gunships.

“It felt good, really good. We kicked their asses,” said a weary Capt. Bill Wainwright, who spent most of the night calling in Air Force and Marine air strikes. “It was a joint operation, and it worked like clockwork.”

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Gen. Schwarzkopf said the Iraqi move into Khafji could hardly be called a military triumph. “I don’t think anyone was taken by surprise,” he said. “Khafji was abandoned. The Iraqis who went in there were unopposed.”

In a vivid example of how slowly battlefield information travels, even in this age of near-instantaneous communication, news of the developing border battle did not filter back to the U.S. public for more than 14 hours.

The fighting apparently began around 9 p.m. Tuesday, Saudi time (10 a.m. in California). But it was in an area where there have been skirmishes and artillery raids every night, and reporters in Dhahran, 200 miles to the south, said that for the first three hours “no one knew what was going on.”

It was not until after 2:20 a.m. California time that wire services began to report that the fighting was serious.

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At the White House, an official said “there were some sketchy reports of skirmishes and problems earlier in the day (Tuesday).” But the first significant information President Bush received about the fighting, the official said, came when he returned to the White House from giving his State of the Union speech at the Capitol at around 10 p.m. in Washington, and received an update from the White House Situation Room.

Times staff writers John Balzar in Dhahran, Kenneth Freed in Nicosia, Cyprus, and John M. Broder, James Gerstenzang and Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this article, which was compiled in part from pool reports.

BACKGROUND

Khafji, where a border fight occurred Wednesday, has been the scene of periodic skirmishes since the start of the Gulf War. In peaceful times, the Saudi town of 20,000 was a major crossroads and vacation spot. In the summer, Saudi and Kuwaiti families would camp outside the city for weeks, barbecuing, playing Frisbee and socializing. The city also features a stretch of white beaches--now stained by an oil spill--that were used for swimming, snorkeling and fishing. Most residents evacuated Khafji at the opening salvo in August, leaving it a virtual ghost town.

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THE FIRST MAJOR GROUND ACTION

1. Late Tuesday night, Iraqi mechanized battalion crosses border west of Wafra, and is forced to retreat after engagement by allied forces.

2. Just before midnight, another Iraqi mechanized battalion moves into the deserted Saudi town of Khafji.

3. Just after midnight, Iraqi infantry and tanks cross border northwest of Khafji. Allied planes force them to withdraw.

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4. About noon Wednesday, a column of tanks crosses at Wafra. Allied air and ground fire force them to withdraw.

U.S. and allied forces battled a multipronged attack by Iraqi troops, the first major ground assault of the Gulf War. Twelve Marines died, the first American ground troops to be killed in action.

WHERE SITUATION STANDS

Allied forces led by Saudi troops tried to liberate the small Saudi town of Khafji, which was being held by an estimated 50 to 150 Iraqis.

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The Iraqis began the ground assault Tuesday night, advancing with about 1,500 troops and 50 tanks in four attacks from the shore of the Persian Gulf about 25 miles west into the Saudi desert. Air strikes and withering ground fire slowly beat back most of invaders.

LOSSES

* Twelve Marines killed, two wounded.

* 2 Marine light armored vehicles reported lost.

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* About a dozen Iraqis captured.

* At least 24 Iraqi tanks destroyed.

PURPOSE

The Iraqi objective was unclear, but officials speculated it was a response to recent heavy Marine fire on Iraqi positions north of the Kuwaiti border.

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