WITH THE U.S. MARINES OUTSIDE KHAFJI -- The battle for the city started innocently enough.
Journalists who reached the city gates on the southern side reported seeing two Iraqi armored vehicles, who were first believed to be advancing in order to give themselves up.
At 11:45 a.m., there was a buzz of excitement as the Saudi Arabian National Guard, positioned around the town, reported that a force of up to 80 Iraqi armored vehicles, which was described as two brigades, was approaching the Khafji area from the north, apparently with the intention of surrendering.
"They have their turrets reversed and they are not indicating any hostile intention," said Maj. Craig Huddleston after hearing the Saudi report over the radio net.
As the Saudis prepared to take the surrender he cautioned his men: "We've got to play this one close to our vest. We don't want to blow this one," reminding them to establish "hostile intent, positive identification," before taking any action.
But barely 10 minutes later another, very different report came through. "They have engaged the Saudis in combat," said the major, "and we're going to kill them."
Shortly afterward, the American howitzers opened up. The sound of landing shells was clearly audible. It was joined with the ripple of exploding rockets fired from the multiple launchers that both sides possess and the deep rumble of aerial bombs.
From time to time, Cobra helicopters flew low overhead. They passed laden with rockets and returned with their pods empty.
At one stage, a column of Saudi Arabian National Guard tanks and armored personnel carriers moved toward the town. The crews were smiling serenely as their kaffiyehs flapped in the wind, saluting and flashing victory signs at the Marines. But less than half an hour later they returned, still smiling, still saluting.
With the ground operation in the hands of the Saudis, details of the situation in Khafji were slow to emerge.
There was also no explanation for the initial reports that the armored force was on its way to surrender. One theory was that the Saudis had been mistaken in thinking that the tanks' turrets were reversed, the conventional sign that a tank is giving up. Another was that it had all been an Iraqi ruse, though it was a potentially suicidal one if the report that the armor had approached in two columns a few kilometers apart, making itself a perfect target for the air force, were true.
There were no figures for casualties, but two U.S. soldiers were missing after taking a wrong turn into Khaffji. Their vehicle was found abandoned by a Marine rescue party.
Saudi forces moved into Khafji's center early today after a series of nightlong assaults. They were backed up by dozens of Qatar army tanks and armored vehicles, as well as the artillery of U.S. Marines.