U.S. Marines entered the capital of Kuwait, and coalition forces cut off the main body of Iraq’s elite Republican Guard on Tuesday as Saddam Hussein’s armies reeled and fled before a massive allied air and land offensive.
“The Iraqi army is in full retreat, although there is some fighting going on,” Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Kelly, chief of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Washington. “Tomorrow, when the sun comes up, the question in my mind is whether the enemy is going to be there.”
The Marines--a force composed of small reconnaissance units--moved into Kuwait city after a daylong advance through wind-swept rain along the Persian Gulf coast. Kuwaiti troops joined them in the capital soon afterward, raising their national flag in the center of town.
The advances in Kuwait came as allied forces launched the climactic battle of the Gulf War late Tuesday, sending U.S. airborne divisions, British tank forces and the heaviest concentration of American armor since World War II against Iraq’s elite Republican Guard near the southeastern Iraqi city of Basra.
Scarcely four days into the massive ground war, coalition troops had pushed deeply into Kuwait and Iraq on three major fronts--along the coast, along the western Kuwaiti border and farther west, up through southeastern Iraq.
By dawn today, the allies had destroyed or neutralized 27 Iraqi divisions--a total of more than 270,000 men, or roughly half of the troops Hussein had deployed in Kuwait and southeastern Iraq, according to Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal. More than 30,000 others had surrendered, and still more began retreating to the north.
But just because some of Hussein’s troops were moving out of Kuwait did not mean they were abandoning their weapons or giving up the fight entirely, the U.S. Central Command said. Instead, some appeared to be pulling back to regroup.
“Through the night and into the day tomorrow, we will continue to press the battle,” Gen. Kelly told a Pentagon briefing Tuesday afternoon. “We are still engaged in combat, and we will not let up.”
Kelly said that since the beginning of the war, coalition forces had destroyed 2,085 Iraqi tanks, about 50% of Hussein’s original complement; 962 armored vehicles, or about one-third, and 1,505 artillery pieces, or about 48%.
U.S. casualties in the ground war held at four dead and 21 wounded. Among the joint Arab forces, the death toll rose to 13 with 43 wounded, Saudi military officials said.
The Pentagon reported that the Republican Guard--on which Hussein had been depending as the backbone of his fighting force--was isolated and in “deep, deep trouble.”
Three Republican Guard divisions were engaged by elements of the U.S. Army’s VII Corps, senior Pentagon officials said. Early reports from Riyadh indicated that one of the guard divisions had been “virtually destroyed” while attempting to provide cover fire as the other two tried to flee.
With a French tank division cutting off escape to the west and two U.S. armored cavalry regiments providing additional mobility to the firepower and unchallenged air supremacy of the allies, U.S. strategists said they expected the coalition to trap and crush the Republican Guard’s remaining forces.
“We’ve got them where we want them,” said a senior military officer in Riyadh. “We’re grabbing onto them and holding onto them, like a junkyard bulldog.”
In an early indication of how the battle may continue to develop, Apache helicopters and ground forces from the U.S. 24th Mechanized Division spotted a convoy of Republican Guard trucks attempting to flee northward, toward Baghdad, early this morning and destroyed 50 top-of-the-line T-72 tanks, officials said.
In other developments
* French forces, supported by U.S. artillery, captured a key air base in southeastern Iraq, according to media pool reports censored to delete place names and locations. A northbound highway in the area, code-named “Texas” by the allies, was reported packed with French and U.S. military vehicles headed for a further push into Iraqi territory. Dozens of Iraqi troops dropped their weapons in an effort to surrender, but there were no military police immediately available to take them into custody, according to the reports.
* No amphibious assault on the Kuwaiti coast has been needed to support the allied ground assault against Iraqi forces in Kuwait city, the Pentagon said. An estimated 18,000 U.S. Marines on 35 ships had been rehearsing for possible landings for more than a month. “We’re already up to the outskirts of Kuwait city,” Gen. Kelly said. “So there’s not a great reason to conduct that amphibious campaign.”
* Oil wells set on fire in Kuwait account for about half that nation’s oil production capacity, according to Rear Adm. John (Mike) McConnell, a Pentagon intelligence expert. “A lot of the infrastructure has been damaged, their gathering centers, the oil tanks, and so on. So we’re talking probably months to years to totally recover, and we’re talking weeks to months to put out the fires.” McConnell said captured documents show that the Iraqis deliberately set the fires.
* Vice President Dan Quayle told soldiers from Kuwait that the final chapter of Iraq’s occupation of their nation was being written as they completed their training at the U.S. Army’s basic training facilities at Ft. Dix, N.J. The volunteers, including nine women, had been recruited by the Kuwaiti Embassy in Washington. The women are the first readied for combat in the Kuwaiti army.
Reeling under blow after crushing blow from advancing allied forces, Iraqi troops retreated under fire or surrendered en masse as troops from the U.S.-led coalition fought to liberate Kuwait city Tuesday.
Exiled Kuwaitis announced that their capital was free in the afternoon, but that proved to be premature. Gen. Neal said an “intense” tank battle, which began Tuesday and then subsided overnight, was raging again at the city’s international airport today as American, Saudi and Egyptian forces closed in on fleeing Iraqis.
The capital lay beneath a pall of smoke from burning oil wells as U.S. and Saudi special forces--the vanguard of the massive allied army poised to retake the city--arrived.
Troops of the U.S. 1st Marine Division later joined the special forces in Kuwait city, according to a dispatch from a correspondent traveling with the Marines. American troops advancing on the capital fought running tank battles with Iraqi troops trying unsuccessfully to block their way, the pool dispatch said.
A Kuwaiti exile who had spoken by satellite telephone with residents in the capital said in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that Kuwait city had been liberated and Iraqi soldiers had fled to avoid their “annihilation.”
A CBS News team went into the city with its own satellite transmission dish ahead of most of the allied troops and broadcast that the Iraqis were gone.
“As far as we know, the Iraqis have left,” Bob McKeown said in a live report Tuesday evening. “We drove into the city with no problems whatsoever. . . . As we stand here, Kuwait city is a free city.”
Leaders of the Kuwaiti resistance told the Associated Press late Tuesday that they were in control of their capital, but they said fleeing Iraqi troops had taken thousands of Kuwaiti captives with them.
According to the resistance, Iraqi troops began their withdrawal Monday night from the city, which had a pre-invasion population of about 450,000. Some Iraqis might still remain in one sector of the city, with some hidden in schools, the resistance leaders said.
A U.S. Marine in Kuwait city told McKeown that the American Embassy in the emirate’s capital was back under U.S. control.
“I wouldn’t want to be an Iraqi now,” an F-16 pilot, Lt. Col. Duane Clawson, said after a mission over Kuwait. “It doesn’t look real good for their side. Everywhere you look, there are tanks and (armored personnel carriers). They’re all on the move, and they’re all our guys.”
The Iraqi army “is in full retreat,” said Gen. Neal, who cautioned that “the war is not over, and we’re going to continue to attack and attack and attack.”
So apparently relieved were Iraqi soldiers to be taken into custody that many surrendered with grins on their faces.
“I didn’t see a defeated enemy,” said Lt. Col. Bob Perrich of Greeley, Colo. “I saw a group of people who did not want to be soldiers, who wanted to be doing something else.”
For many of the captives, surrender meant they no longer had to live on grass and rainwater--the diet one prisoner told reporters he and his comrades had subsisted on for 28 days. The 28-year-old Kurdish soldier said he had been forced to serve in the Iraqi army after his two brothers were killed for refusing to volunteer.
Overwhelmed by the numbers, allied forces have put many of the Iraqi prisoners in holding areas in the desert until adequate transportation could be found. Some were too weak to walk back to the Saudi rear lines.
Iraqi’s Hussein had ordered his troops to withdraw from Kuwait, but American officials dismissed the order as a ploy to salvage Iraq’s gutted army. Allied commanders vowed to attack any Iraqis spotted retreating in tanks or with other weapons.
Neal, chief of staff of the allied forces’ Central Command, scoffed at the notion that the Iraqis were withdrawing.
“By definition, a withdrawal is when you pull your forces back, not under pressure from the attacking forces,” Neal said. “A retreat is when you’re required to pull your forces back as required by action of the attacking forces.”
The Iraqis, Neal said, “are retreating, but they are retreating under fire.”
American, British and French forces kept the heat on retreating Iraqi forces and engaged them in sporadic combat.
Under a moonless sky in a driving rain, the British 1st Armored Division moved northward with the U.S. Army’s VII Corps along a flank west of the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border before slipping eastward into Kuwait. Within 24 hours, British units overran two companies of enemy tanks, two artillery batteries and an important communication site, field commanders said.
British forces suffered their first fatality in the ground war during the attack, and six other soldiers were wounded, military officials said. Six-hundred Iraqis, including a brigade commander, were captured and 40 tanks destroyed.
An estimated 150,000 American, British and French troops had pinned down units of the Republican Guard west of the southeastern Iraqi city of Basra, and officers from the U.S. VII Corps predicted a rout within 48 hours if the elite Iraqi troops refused to surrender.
The allied forces were at the Euphrates River, “poised to prevent any withdrawal to Baghdad,” a senior Pentagon official said. “This is it; we have them checkmated.”
The VII Corps officers said fighting was heavy and there were no signs that the guard was about to quit the fight and abandon its top-of-the-line equipment.
“We still have a lot of bad guys up there who haven’t thrown up their hands,” Col. Johnnnie B. Hitt said.
‘They’re not fighting real well by our standards, but they’re fighting,” a Pentagon official said.
Pilots flying surveillance missions over the Republican Guard units near Basra said they saw Iraqi tanks moving out of their dug-in, fortified positions.
Gen. Neal said the guard units did not appear to be moving significantly but, under fire, were repositioning themselves in alternate bunkers to fight more effectively.
“I hope that . . . we isolate them and we destroy those pockets that continue to resist and that the others will get the word and will drop their weapons and become enemy prisoners of war,” Neal said.
Violent winds and swirling rain forced suspension of air resupply of forward U.S. Army units advancing deep into Iraq on Tuesday.
The 18th Army Aviation Brigade, which supports American units striking into Iraq, was grounded Tuesday morning when turbulent winds reached 30 m.p.h. and visibility dropped to half a mile.
Even walking was difficult. The flour-like dirt of the border region turned to a slippery slop, and soldiers had to lean into the force of the wind.
Tents blew away, vehicles mired down and, most serious, the steady buzz of troop, attack and supply helicopters was silenced.
“It’s pretty bad right now,” said an Air Force weather forecaster, Staff Sgt. Michael Sincore of Fairfax, Va. ". . . It’s definitely going to be hindering things quite a lot.”
Military officials said that the approaching heavy weather had been sighted before commanders launched the ground assault on Kuwait and Iraq on Sunday. But they apparently did not expect it to be this severe.
Military forecasters said the severe weather, which also touched off a warning of turbulence for fliers, was forecast to break briefly today, then return.
Tightening The Noose
Allied troops, encountering only pockets of resistance, moved closer to their goal of encircling the Republican Guard in northern Kuwait and southern Iraq. Meanwhile, the liberationof Kuwait city proceeded on schedule, with thousand of troops poised to enter the city. The following events and positions are based on military sources and some unconfirmed or censoredpress reports.
1.-Allied troops, including jubilant Kuwaitis, were reported entering Kuwait city in the first hours of the morning after fierce fighting Tuesday. They had cut off retreating Iraqi troops and were fighting for control of the airport. Most of the fighting Tuesday was done without air support because of rain and heavy smoke.
-U.S. and Saudi special forces moved into Kuwait city from the south, the vanguard of an allied force of thousands of U.S., Saudi, Kuwaiti and Omani troops. A CBS television crew made it in ahead of the allies, and civilians were reported dancing in the streets.
2.-An estimated 100,000 American, French and British troops were beyond the Euphrates River and heading toward the Iraqi city of Basra, a key communications center. The allied strategy to contain the Republican Guard is summed up in this quote from a senior Pentagon offical: “If they try to go back to Basra, the Air Force will kill them. If they go to the other side of the Tigris, the bridges are down. If they try to flee north to Baghadad, they’ll run into the U.S. Army, and if they move south into Kuwait, they run into coalition forces and the U.S. Marines.” A convoy of 50 of Iraqi’s best tanks was reported captured trying to escape near the Euphrates River.
3.-Thousands of British troops and tanks, supported by U.S. engineers, swept through the Iraqi desert into western Kuwait.
4.-The Pentagon dropped plans for a Marine amphibious assault on Kuwait city, saying the ground action was so successful that it wasn’t needed. About 18,000 Marines have been poisedfor days in Gulf, ready to help liberate the city.
5.-French forces supported by U.S. artillery captured a key Iraqi air base south of Baghdad as allied forces pushed deeper into the midsection of Iraq. The base was not identified in media pool reports.
OUT OF ACTION
At Tuesday’s daily media briefing, Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal presented details of Iraqi losses since the start of the ground war.
DIVISIONS: Allied forces have destroyed or rendered ineffective 21 Iraqi divisions. Before the start of the war, there were 42 divisions in the Kuwait theater of operations.
TROOPS: Based on an Iraqi infantry division of 10,000 to 12,000 men, about 200,000 troops are out of action. Before the war started Jan. 17, Iraq had 545,000 men in and around Kuwait.
TANKS: More than 400 have been destroyed, in addition to numerous other vehicles.
POWS: The allies have effectively stopped counting Iraqi prisoners of war because so many have been taken since the ground war began. Officials stopped the count at about 26,000, but Neal estimated that the total is now more than 30,000.
Times staff writers John Balzar in northern Saudi Arabia and John M. Broder, Paul Richter and Robert W. Stewart in Washington contributed to this report.