U.S. Marines fired anti-tank weapons and called in air strikes to repel a three-pronged attack into Saudi Arabia by tank-led Iraqi forces today. Twelve Marines were killed and two wounded, and heavy Iraqi casualties were reported, U.S. military officials said.
Marine Lt. Col. Cliff Myers described the fighting as "hellacious."
The Marines were the first American ground forces to die in battle in the two-week war with Iraq. The clash, the heaviest ground fighting so far in the Persian Gulf war, started last night when Iraqi tanks were spotted moving into Saudi Arabia from occupied Kuwait.
By late afternoon, about 50 Iraqi troops in armored personnel carriers were holding the central part of the abandoned Saudi border town of Khafji, said U.S. Marines and Saudi troops deployed on the outskirts. It was the first time Iraq held any Saudi territory since the war began.
The Marines, who held parts of the town, said they did not expect the Iraqis to try to move south, further into Saudi Arabia. The allies had not been deployed in Khafji when the fighting began.
Marines in a small weapons and scouting platoon said the two sides exchanged artillery and small-arms fire throughout the day today. The Iraqi forces also fired rockets toward the rear positions of the allied units around the city, the Marines said.
Black acrid smoke and flames poured out of one target hit just at the entrance to the town, where a shell had ripped a crater in the road about 3 feet across and 18 inches deep.
In an apparent ruse, an Iraqi armored force of up to 80 vehicles and 3,000 to 4,000 troops approached Saudi troops with the tanks' turrets turned around as if they planned to surrender. However, the Iraqis engaged the Saudis, who were backed up by Marine artillery and air support.
Reports from Marines on the ground spoke of street fighting in Khafji.
About 20 Iraqi armored vehicles were destroyed and 25 Iraqi soldiers were reported captured, according to news pool reports. Army Lt. Greg Pepin said allied "casualties appear to be less than 20." He did not elaborate.
A Saudi tank stood at the entrance to the city and the Marines said at least 10 others had surrounded the town to cut off any retreat or advance by the Iraqi forces.
Before the outbreak of fighting, there was talk of finding a way out of war. The United States and the Soviet Union declared last night that a cease-fire would be possible if Iraq made "an unequivocal commitment" to withdraw all its troops from Kuwait and took "concrete steps" in that direction. However, the White House said the statement reflected no change in U.S. policy.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir complained today that the United States joined the Soviet Union in the cease-fire offer without consulting Israel. "I would say that we see a defect here. A political act that involves us, our fate, our future, was taken without consulting with us, without even telling us beforehand," Shamir said.
In Washington, President Bush invoked today the memory of another wartime president, Franklin Roosevelt, to rally support for Operation Desert Storm, saying the goal of the Persian Gulf war is the triumph of a new "moral order" in the world. "We ask God to bless us, to guide us and to help us through whatever dark nights we still may face," the president said in remarks to lawmakers at the Capitol last night.
In the Saudi clash, some Iraqi soldiers remained holed up in Khafji in midafternoon, and the Saudi troops were "trying to talk them into surrendering," said a U.S. military official in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
The Marines lost two armored vehicles in the battles, and the Iraqis lost 20 T-55 tanks and armored personnel carriers, Marine officers said. Myers said much of the Iraqi armor was destroyed by TOW anti-tank missiles fired by Marine ground units.
Iraqi radio, monitored by the British Broadcasting Corp., called the strikes a triumph for its forces. An Iraqi military communique described the Iraqi action as a "massive assault . . . all through the battlefront with Saudi Arabia."
According to a military source at the Pentagon, the attack involved three Iraqi battalions, probably around 1,500 men. Army spokesman Pepin said there apparently were four Iraqi incursions in all. There were various accounts about the fighting from different sources at the front.
U.S. officials described the Iraqi assault as a multipronged "probing" attack designed to size up enemy strength and weaponry. They said 50 Iraqi tanks were moving toward and across the Saudi border when the fighting began.
The tanks first were engaged by troops from the tiny gulf state of Qatar. The Qataris destroyed two Iraqi tanks and took 10 prisoners, preliminary reports said.
The heaviest fighting was right at the Saudi-Kuwaiti border, according to the pool dispatches by reporters in the area.