U.S. military strategists perplexed by Iraq's intentions on the battlefield WAR IN THE GULF

February 02, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- As ground clashes between allied and Iraqi forces grow in size and number, U.S. commanders face continued frustrations in trying to determine Iraq's battlefield capabilities and strategies.

Their frustration is due in part to Iraq's willingness to portray apparent weakness as strength. Iraq unabashedly claims the propaganda value of a victory even when results in the field add up to a defeat, as appears to be the case with the battle in and around the Saudi border town of Khafji.

Iraq's version of events was simple and dramatic: Iraqi troops invaded a previously inviolate country. They captured a town. In the process, 11 U.S. Marines were killed. It was a potentially powerful story for home consumption and for the propaganda effort aimed at mobilizing Arab and Muslim support for the Iraqi side.

It also adds to what U.S. officers call "the fog of war" -- the inevitable confusion generated on a battlefield.

Commanders trying to coordinate ground and air forces, as was done at Khafji, acknowledge that actions rarely go according to plan and can be followed only with difficulty even by officers who know the script.

"You can sketch it all out on a piece of paper or open a field manual to get a concept of how it's supposed to work," said Army Lt. Col. Bill Reese, commander of a combined helicopter and infantry squadron. "But this is mounted warfare, and it happens very quickly, and everything gets mixed up."

A clash can raise more questions than it answers. Did the attacking Iraqi column at Khafji carefully plan its actions? Or did it stumble into battle? Were its troops the best the Iraqi side has to offer? Or the dregs of the much larger force remaining in Kuwait?

U.S. commanders offer the theory that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein acted out of desperation. They assert that he was anxious to draw the coalition into ground battles before his own units suffered more damage from allied air bombardments.

"This attack at Khafji -- that's stupid," Air Force Lt. Gen. Chuck Horner told reporters. "That's the stupidest thing he could do. Now why is he doing that? To me, it occurs one of the answers is that he's desperate, and he sees that he's getting chewed up."

The closed, authoritarian nature of Iraqi society makes it almost impossible for outsiders to know what information is available to Mr. Hussein. It is difficult to interpret even actions that can be seen, as with the recent departure of more than 90 Iraqi aircraft to Iran.

A week after the flights began, it remains unclear whether the pilots acted according to orders by Mr. Hussein or contrary to them. Nor is it clear whether their action helps or hinders the anti-Iraq coalition.

One of the largest uncertainties is the condition of the Republican Guards, the elite Iraqi units deployed in Kuwait. Despite assurances from senior commanders that everything is going well, U.S. pilots say they are unsure of the effects of their bombing.

"They're very well dug in," a Marine F-18 pilot said. "We're hurting them, but it's hard to quantify how much we're hurting them."

As their missions give them a greater appreciation of the great expanse of desert in Iraq, pilots say they become more certain that at least some Iraqi units remain well-protected. "There are still a lot of areas that have not been bombed," a Marine colonel said. "It's a large force, and it's a big desert."

Pilots are unsure how to interpret the lack of Iraqi air defense radars, the systems necessary to make anti-aircraft missiles effective. Those radars have either been destroyed, pilots say, or intentionally turned off to be preserved for later use.

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