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Allies Retake Saudi Port : Iraqi Troops Reportedly Massing for New Attack

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Allied forces took back the small coastal town of Khafji from the Iraqis today after two days of fighting that marked the first major ground battle of the Persian Gulf War.

But front-line commanders said they suspected the Iraqis were massing near the Kuwaiti town of Wafra, perhaps preparing for an even larger attack.

By late afternoon, the allied forces announced the recapture of Khafji, which was taken by the Iraqis late Tuesday night by merely driving into the abandoned village and taking over.

Although described by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of the allied forces, as “being about as important as a mosquito on an elephant,” Khafji was of psychological importance because it was the first time the Iraqis had occupied anything on Saudi Arabian soil.

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Brig. Gen. Pat Stevens IV, in an early evening briefing today, said that Saudi forces had retaken and secured the town, with the aid of Marine helicopter gunships. But he also said the town was retaken after Iraqi reinforcements moved in close to Khafji and helped some of those trapped inside to escape.

About 160 Iraqi prisoners were taken at Khafji, according to initial reports. Saudi officials said a large portion of their tanks and equipment was destroyed.

Iraq’s official news agency today quoted the newspaper of Iraq’s ruling Baath party as saying the ground fighting at Khafji was the prelude to a far bigger battle. The paper, Al-Thawra, called it “the beginning of a thunderous storm blowing on the Arab desert.”

Marines on the outskirts of Khafji said they had been told five or six Iraqi divisions--at least 60,000 troops--were massing near the Kuwaiti town of Wafra, about 25 miles to the west, and were believed preparing for an attack.

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The four-pronged Iraqi attack that began Tuesday evening and ended today involved only about 1,500 ground troops and 50 tanks and was considered a probe to test allied strength.

The fighting over the past two days, which took place on three fronts of the Saudi-Kuwaiti border, was described by Gen. Stevens today as a “reconnaissance in force,” in which the Iraqi troops sought to engage the allied troops in combat to probe for possible weaknesses.

The fighting resulted in the first American ground casualties, with 11 Marines killed in combat about 15 miles to the west of Khafji in what was described Wednesday as a “hellacious” firefight. Initial reports were that 12 soldiers had been killed.

Two light armored vehicles were lost in the same fighting, but it was unclear whether the Marines who were killed were in those vehicles.

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While Schwarzkopf downplayed the Khafji incursion, saying it was “only one battle,” the Iraqis hailed it as a great moment because the attack thwarted the allied determination to pick when the ground war would begin.

Stevens also reported that a number of Iraqi naval vessels had been sunk or damaged in the last 48 hours and that 20 prisoners of war were picked up by an American Navy ship after an Iraqi landing craft was heavily damaged by a British helicopter.


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