View Full Version : Former Marine details ‘pivotal’ Gulf War battle

04-25-04, 08:30 AM
Former Marine details ‘pivotal’ Gulf War battle

By Richard Gazarik
Sunday, April 18, 2004

"Storm on the Horizon; Khafji -- The Battle that Changed the Course of the Gulf War," by David J. Morris, Free Press, $25, 317 pages.

It was Jan. 29, 1991.

The run-up to the first Gulf War was under way as the U.S.-led allies had Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in their crosshairs.

Then Saddam surprised them.

He tried a bold move by launching an invasion with three armored divisions into Saudi Arabia in an attempt to disrupt the pending U.S.-led invasion to liberate Kuwait.

Two Marine deep reconnaissance platoons and a group of Special Forces soldiers were on the fringe of Iraq serving as a tripwire to an attack, collecting intelligence and protecting a Marine fuel and ammunition storage site which was located forward of Marine lines.

These recon teams are prepositioned well beyond friendly lines. They communicate with forces in the rear so planners can keep track of the exact positions of enemy forces.

Morris, a former Marine officer, tells the story how these units, outmanned and outgunned, found themselves overrun by the Iraqis and forced to take refuge in Khafji, a Saudi border town.

Relying on radios with dying batteries, the Marines and soldiers repulsed the assault with a combination of high technology and advanced weapons in a battle that Morris argues, was a pivotal point in the 100-day war although U.S. military leaders relegated the fight to a minor skirmish.

The Iraqi units were decimated by coordinated air attacks because the Marines and soldiers, hunkered down secretly in buildings waiting to be overrun, called in punishing air strikes against Iraqi troops and armored units near their positions.

The war began Jan. 17 as the allies launched a relentless air campaign against Hussein's command and control elements in a prelude to a ground invasion of Kuwait.

Feeling the mounting pressure, Hussein decided to strike first.

Using armored and mechanized units, Hussein planned a three-pronged drive into Saudi Arabia to disrupt the coalitions plans. Khafji was the weak link that Hussein planned to attack. The sector was guarded by untested units of the Saudi Arabian National Guard and units from Qatar.

Marine recon units, driving lightly armed vehicles equipped with TOW missiles and heavy machine guns, had to rely on support from their Arab allies in case they got into trouble. The Marines were positioned so far out into the desert that they were out of artillery range if they got into trouble.

On the night of Jan. 29, 100 Iraqi tanks and armed vehicles began to move toward the Marines observation posts.

On the verge of being overrun, the units retreated toward Khafji, finding refuge in Khafji's abandoned buildings.

After several harrowing days, the Marines finally were able to bring to bear the full might of U.S. airpower.

The Marines communicated with a team of target specialists known by the military acronym ANGLICO - Air-Naval Gunfire Liaison Company who were assigned to Arab military units to coordinate artillery and air attacks.

ANGLICO teams helped direct the bombing that decimated the Iraqi units. The teams included pilots and artillery officers to give these Arab units fire support during the invasion.

The battle was overlooked by the news media and even military officials, according to Morris, because no major U.S. units were involved. Besides, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf was planning a major feint and end run around Iraqi defenses into Kuwait.

Schwarzkopf said the battle was "about as significant as a pinprick on the hide of an elephant."

Morris writes that the U.S. military leaders treated the fight as an "inconsequential skirmish carried out in a distant corner of Saudi Arabia."

According to Morris, the battle proved that the Iraqi military was a third-rate army and vastly overrated despite being battle-tested in an eight-year all-out war with Iran.

The Iraqi plan was bold, but Hussein's generals did not have the military skill to pull it off, Morris concludes. As a result, Marine Lt. Gen. Walter Boomer decided to attack the Iraqis in Kuwait even more aggressively than he had planned.

Although accounts vary on casualties, the U.S. Air Force listed 2,000 Iraqis killed in action. ANGLICO teams reported 75 light vehicles destroyed, 48 killed and 400 prisoners captured near Khafji.

Despite the high-tech advantages the Marines had, the TOWs were limited because they used thermal sights, which relied on targeting by picking up heat images from vehicles. Marine gunners still had difficulty separating friend from foe in the desert night. Fighting in the desert is tough enough but when Iraqi vehicles began moving toward Khafji, the Marines had difficulty differentiating Iraqi tanks from humvees.

The only Marines to die during the battle were killed mistakenly by other Marines. During the retreat toward Khafji, one Marine TOW gunner blasted another vehicle killing the occupants.

Richard Gazarik can be reached at rgazarik@tribweb.com or (724) 830-6292.