12 Marines die in first big battle IRAQIS FIGHT TO HOLD DESERTED SAUDI TOWN Allies believe invaders sustain heavy losses WAR IN THE GULF

January 31, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun Charles W. Corddry of The Sun's Washington Bureau contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- In the first major ground fighting of the Persian Gulf war, Iraqi troops and tanks launched moonlit strikes into northern Saudi Arabia and seized an abandoned Saudi village yesterday.

Twelve Marines were reported killed, the first U.S. deaths in ground combat since the war began. Early today, the fighting was still going on.

Iraqi radio proclaimed a major victory, saying that "the forces of Saddam Hussein are wiping out the renegade invaders and knocking out the forces of infidelity, corruption and treason." But allied officials reported heavy Iraqi casualties as coalition soldiers and aircraft drove back three attacks and struggled for control of the coastal town of Khafji.

Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the top U.S. commander in the gulf, denied that U.S.-led forces had been surprised and said that the incursion may have been a "spoiling attack" against allied artillery positions that had shelled Iraqi troops in southern Kuwait for three days. Iraqi forces "certainly have a lot of fight left in them. . . . I don't think that battle is over by a long shot," he told reporters in Saudi Arabia.

"That's just one battle. That's not the war," the burly general said, with more than a hint of bravado. "With regard to Saddam Hussein saying that he has met the best that the coalition has to offer, I would only say, the best is yet to come."

As the gulf war entered its third week, General Schwarzkopf delivered an ebullient progress report on the allied air campaign, complete with dramatic new video footage of successful U.S. bomb strikes against Scud missile launchers, Iraqi aircraft shelters and key highway and railroad bridges.

In one close-up shot, taken from the night-vision camera aboard an attacking U.S. jet, a motorist -- described dryly by the general as "the luckiest man in Iraq on this particular day" -- can be seen speeding across a bridge seconds before it exploded.

General Schwarzkopf said the allies have now achieved air supremacy, the first time a top U.S. commander has made that claim. Officials have previously claimed superiority over only portions of Iraqi airspace, not the entire war zone.

"The simple fact of the matter is that now every time an Iraqi airplane takes off the ground, it's running away," he said. U.S. officials say that 89 Iraqi planes have now flown to Iran. Three more entered Iranian airspace yesterday, Tehran radio reported.

Allied bombers have wiped out Iraq's central air defense system and along with it, apparently, Iraq's ability to aim surface-to-air missiles at attacking aircraft. This has allowed U.S. warplanes to change tactics, officials said, making it possible, for example, to make bombing runs from lower altitudes, increasing chances of hitting targets.

Having driven the Iraqis from the skies, allied forces are now closing in on isolating Iraqi ground forces in Kuwait and southern Iraq. U.S. planes have damaged or destroyed 33 key bridges on the vital supply line between Baghdad and areas where a ground war would be fought, he said.

Although U.S. officials will not make precise information public on how much of Iraq's elite Republican Guard has been damaged by air strikes, the general provided the first sketchy details on the campaign against them.

More than 300 sorties a day are being waged against the Republican Guards, 150,000 highly trained soldiers dug into the desert in southern Iraq. As many as two dozen or more B-52 strikes a day have dropped between 315 tons and 470 tons of high explosives on them this week, the general said.

"The many secondary explosions [caused when vehicles or ammunition supplies are hit] are confirming the fact that we're inflicting continuous damage on them," he said. Over a 15-hour period ending early yesterday, military intelligence confirmed that the number of vehicles destroyed or damaged from allied bombing of Republican Guard positions was 52 tanks, 55 artillery pieces and 178 trucks.

He refused to estimate the extent of Iraqi casualties. "I'm anti-body count," General Schwarzkopf said. "Body count means nothing, absolutely nothing. And all it is is a wild guess that tends to mislead people as to what's going on."

In the first two weeks of the war, three-fourths of Iraq's electrical generating capacity was been destroyed or damaged, and many of the storage facilities for refined petroleum products that could be used to fuel military vehicles and aircraft were also destroyed.

The general gave a graphic description of the detonation of the main ammunition depot for Iraqi forces in the battle zone, saying it produced a "spectacular explosion" bigger than a volcanic eruption.

"That means that what [ammunition] they've got is what they've got and . . . if they use that up, they're going to be hurting," he remarked.

More than half of Iraq's biological and chemical munitions factories and storage areas have also been destroyed, he said, along with all of the nuclear production sites.

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