Marines at front question courage of Saudi troops War in the Gulf

February 05, 1991|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Sun Staff Correspondent

DHAHRAN, SAUDIA ARABIA — DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- Iraq's bold ground assaults into Saudi territory last week have raised troubling doubts among U.S. troops over the ability of Saudi defense forces to deal with future threats.

While U.S. commanders were quick to praise the performance of Saudi Arabian troops in the battle to recapture the Saudi border town of Khafji, the sentiment does not appear to be shared widely among Marines and soldiers near the front.

Some Marines indicated yesterday that they regarded Saudi troops as ready to "haul ass" as soon as the going gets tough.

Other U.S. troops expressed anger over Iraq's apparent hit-and-run tactics and fear that the enemy may not be cowed by the allies' punishing bombing attacks of its military facilities and supply lines.

"It was quite a shock to me that they got that many vehicles together across the border without getting them shot up," said Sgt. E. J. Ingram of Germantown, Ohio, an artilleryman in the Army's 2nd Armored Division.

"It made me think twice about what the Air Force is claiming with its bombing," Sergeant Ingram said.

Maj. Glenn Hulse of Rockville referred to the apparent ruse an Iraqi armored battalion used while approaching Saudi positions last week at Khafji, the deserted coastal town near the Kuwaiti border. Marines said Iraqi tanks rolled toward the town with their gun turrets pointed to the rear, which the Saudis believed was a sign of surrender.

Major Hulse, one of the armored division's operations officers, said of his troops, "They look at the fact that the Iraqis came in with turned-around barrels and pretended to surrender, then started firing, and they get really pissed off.

"It's a shoot-first, ask-questions-later thing now," Major Hulse said.

"Our mission is a destruction mission. We are to expend the ammunition and time it takes to destroy the enemy forces," he said.

Members of the 1st Marine Division told reporters that Saudi troops manning a roadblock on the outskirts of Khafji left it abruptly on the night of the incursion. Their tents and even a helmet remained, indicating a hasty departure.

In addition, the Marines said they offered to supply air support when fighting began, but none was requested. Only later did the Marines call in massive artillery and airborne rocket and bombing attacks to enable the Saudis to beat back the Iraqis.

The ground battle was joined by elements of the Saudi army and National Guard, the Saudi Royal Marines and an armored unit from Qatar, all of whom had been given primary responsibility for defending Khafji.

After hours of intense fighting, Iraqi armored reinforcements entered Khafji to prolong the battle and to help evacuate the troops who had occupied the town, U.S. officials said.

U.S. and Saudi officials have been at a loss to explain how that could have occurred in what was supposed to be an area defended by Saudi troops and observed by U.S. aircraft.

For the most part, senior military officials have deflected this and other questions, choosing instead to declare victory, to praise the Arab performance and to scoff at Iraq's battlefield tactics.

"I think they [the Iraqis] have a grossly overexaggerated opinion of themselves based on fighting a relatively unsophisticated Iranian enemy, many of whom attacked without even a weapon in their hands," said Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander in chief of U.S. forces in the region. The general was referring to Iraq's 8-year-long war with Iran.

"It wasn't a very sophisticated battle they fought [against Iran] and it was sort of a brute-force slugfest."

Nonetheless, Iraq's demonstrated ability to mount rapid incursions into Saudi Arabia has led to a repositioning of some U.S. and Arab forces near the border and a review of the system for "command, control, communications and intelligence" with the Saudis, military officials said.

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