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Images of War: Carnage, the Last Push, Nightmares : On the battlefield: There was elation--and anger--when fighting was halted.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

And suddenly it was silent, the battlefield still smoldering from a final barrage of war.

Ahead lay scores of hulks of burning tanks, the remnants of an Iraqi army trapped as it tried to flee Kuwait. Around them a border base had been reduced to chaos, the back of bunkers broken by weeks of aerial bombardment, the sand strewn with scattered wreckage and littered with the steel helmets that Iraqi soldiers had left behind.

Yet at the forefront of an American advance, a division-wide row of U.S. armor remained unbroken, hundreds of main guns now pointed south and east toward a Kuwaiti border just two miles away, on the brink of another battle.

It was 8 a.m., and every soldier’s radio had just come alive with the order to halt the fighting.

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In a forward tank platoon, Sgt. Richard Smith, 24, of Oswego, Ill., seated in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, cautiously lifted the heavy steel hatch that had been sealed tight over his head for war, unable to believe the fighting was really over.

A deafening artillery barrage had just poured forth on Iraqi positions just ahead, fire flashing from every gun in the battalion in a prelude to what commanders had warned could be the biggest battle of the Persian Gulf War.

Earlier, as the battalion radio had urged the soldiers to stand by for attack, a 19-year-old ammunition-loader in the seat next to Smith read aloud from the Bible stowed behind his seat: “The war will rise up against me . . . my heart should not fear.”

But now politics had intervened; there would be no final battle.

And after a lightning war that had sent the 1st Armored Division against Iraq’s best forces in a 150-mile left hook, the soldiers in the Bradley vehicle and across the U.S. front lines, began to breathe deep for the first time since crossing into Iraq.

“We wiped the sweat from our eyes and shook each other’s hand,” gunner Smith said. “And then we made some coffee.”

Next door, along the line of armor arrayed here on a rare patch of desert grass, a crew hoisted an American flag above its M-1A1 tank to join other such banners already flapping triumphantly over Iraqi territory.

“You will never forget the last 100 hours,” a weary brigade commander, Col. James Riley, told soldiers later. “We were part of a movement that completely unhinged what the other guy had set up for months and months. And we came through just as unscathed as anyone thought possible.”

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Maj. Gen. Ronald H. Griffith, the exultant division commander who had directed much of the battle from aloft in a Blackhawk helicopter, added in an interview on Friday: “This is going to go down as one of the great armored campaigns in history.”

The halted fighting for this armored division came after its 20,000 or so soldiers charged for nearly four days across the desert, as part of a massive American flanking attack that turned to headlong pursuit as Iraqi forces sought to leave Kuwait. In its closing drive, the U.S. troops had clashed with elements of at least five Iraqi divisions, including a furious battle on Wednesday against a Medina Division force that sought to block the American advance while other Iraqi troops continued to escape.

Griffith said reports indicated that the U.S. attack had wiped out three full Iraqi divisions, including the Medina, as well as taking a heavy toll on another Republican Guard division. Division commanders put Iraqi losses--including captured vehicles--at 309 tanks, 318 armored personnel carriers, hundreds of trucks and dozens of artillery pieces.

By contrast, the armored division lost just four tanks and two Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Two Americans were killed in the attacks; 36 were wounded. Early indications suggested that as many as 10,000 Iraqis had been killed.

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“Look in the history books,” Gen. Griffith urged officers, gathered under the tent of a brigade command post after the battle. “This has never been done. You had a high school team playing in the Super Bowl against the New York Giants, and they got their ass whipped.”

The division had been preparing to push farther east to cut off fleeing Iraqi forces, so the halt to the battle brought with it a measure of frustration.

“There is elation mixed with anger that we didn’t go far enough,” acknowledged brigade commander Riley, after the order forced the division to abort the planned assault. “We needed to go another day.”

Griffith, too, expressed frustration that the division had not been able to drive farther into Kuwait. But he said the principal constraint had come as the high-speed armored charge outran its own fuel supplies. “Fuel certainly was a major problem,” he said. “We were experiencing in the last hours of battle a real shortage of fuel.”

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But as the commanders and other grim-faced soldiers stripped off the chemical-protection suits they had worn nonstop since the combat began, what was most palpable in this desert was a sweeping feeling of relief.

“If things kept going, probably it would have gotten exciting,” said Sgt. 1st Class Roger Sturgiss, 38, a senior noncommissioned officer from Port Hueneme. “Whether it would have gotten exciting wonderful or exciting horrible, we won’t know, and that’s just fine with us.”

As silence replaced the din of war, an end to the roar and crash and rumble, the visual evidence of American destruction was nearby.

Near a road at the battlefield’s center, top-of-the-line Soviet-made T-72 tanks and BMB armored personnel carriers lay charred and broken, their parts strewn for hundreds of yards in explosions that had sent flames about 80 feet into the air. Trucks had run off the roadway and now lay in battered heaps, some ripped apart by tank-sized rounds; others crashed head-on into poles--and even one another--amid the terror and confusion of the five-hour fight.

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Some corpses lay atop the asphalt. Other Iraqis appeared to have died in their vehicles as they burned. Or they were wounded and hauled away by others, their boots, gas masks and helmets scattered at the road’s edge and deep into the desert, the legacy of American tanks that fired killing blows from 2 miles away. In an eerie sign that others may have survived only by rapid flight, uneaten meals of rice and peas were still perched, spoons ready, inside some of the Iraqi armored vehicles.

On either side of the road that those vehicles had once traveled--a path that ran through a sprawling military training area that had served as a base for the Iraqi Medina Division--the battle raged for miles; the area campaign clearly began long before the ground offensive with what appeared to have been saturation bombing from the air.

But the freshest blows had been struck by a 45-minute artillery barrage that began promptly at 5:30 a.m. It was aimed at key sites across the compound in a softening-up attack that Gen. Griffith called “one of the most devastating ever fired by a division in combat.”

As armored vehicles rolled through the area only hours later, underground command bunkers lay exposed, roofs broken and collapsed, office chairs and tables and other unexpected contents tossed askew and strewn across the sand. Ammunition bunkers, filled with rockets and artillery shells, now burned in orange flame, setting the sky aglow. The bunkers also periodically erupted in giant explosions that interrupted the silence after the fighting had halted.

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Some American soldiers still found time to patrol the battlefield in search of souvenirs, collecting patches and even the distinctive black berets worn by the Republican Guards.

But with war having turned to calm so abruptly, many were still reliving the battle of their lives, the clash that had pitted tank against tank in a remarkably one-sided fight.

“It was like a movie out of World War II,” said Jesse Sloan, 19, a gunner based in Germany. “You look to your left and to your right, and everybody’s firing in line.”

Lt. Eric Drake, 23, a platoon leader from Wilsie, W. Va., said of his taste of war: “You’re superhuman. You’re invincible. You’re rolling into battle and nothing can touch you.”

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A few hours after fighting stopped, adrenaline was still coursing through the 4th Battalion, 66th Tank Regiment, which was credited with at least 30 kills of tanks and other armored vehicles. But soldiers also spoke with a reflectiveness that had seemed lacking in their prewar bluster, a sober wisdom that made some suddenly appear old for their young years.

“It was careful, controlled, deliberate chaos,” concluded Drake.

Riley, the brigade commander, said of the transformation: “Four days ago, you soldiers were sitting on the other side of the border not knowing what to expect. And now here we are 100 hours later, and every soldier is a combat veteran.”

Only death still remained alien here, the product of a tightly reined operations with controls at every step to minimize American casualties. Commanders cross-checked repeatedly to ensure that their troops did not fire on friendly forces, as a monitoring of radio traffic, from within a Bradley command vehicle positioned just behind the American front lines, showed.

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And when a soldier was killed, as happened to a scout in this unit late in the battle, all seemed to grieve. “We’re lucky in a way,” said Maj. Scott Everson, a battalion executive officer. “We haven’t had to become callous.”

In the battle’s aftermath, commanders said the head-to-head clash had validated their confidence in American standoff tactics, which rely on the superior range and sighting capabilities of U.S. weapons to kill from safety, beyond enemy reach. And with Iraqi units forced at last from their bunkers, soldiers and commanders alike described every battle as a feeding frenzy.

“Our hope was we would get these guys out in the open,” said Everson, of Sierra Vista, Ariz. “And what you saw was the result of that happening. It was pretty much a one-way exchange.”

But less than lessons, what soldiers wanted most to think of in the hours after war were the long-anticipated spoils: a speedy exit from the desert and a rapid flight back home. “It’s going to be baby-making time when I get back to Germany,” said Sgt. Ignatious Montgomery, 28, a squad leader from Mobile, Ala.

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Commanders here knew, of course, that any exodus from Iraq would be days, if not weeks away. Nevertheless, there were clear indications by Thursday night of peacetime practices returning, as the Army begins what now appears likely to be a highly visible occupation here on Iraqi soil.

No longer, the Army command advised, would soldiers be required to live under the rigid nighttime blackout that they had employed to keep their location secret.

In the Iraqi desert, the war now had turned to a victorious calm, in which white light would be just fine.

This report was reviewed by military censors.

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