The Ground War

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The Ground War

On February 22, 1991, U.S. President George Bush (1924–; served 1989–93 ) set a deadline of noon the following day for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (1937–) to withdraw his military forces from neighboring Kuwait. By this time, the U.S.-led coalition had been pounding military targets in Iraq and Kuwait from the air for nearly six weeks. Though the air war had taken a severe toll on the Iraqi forces, Hussein still refused to withdraw. He also promised to cause major damage to the coalition troops if they attacked on the ground.

On February 24 the coalition launched a dramatic ground assault to force the Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. Coalition leaders expected to meet tough resistance from Hussein's army, but they encountered very little. In fact, thousands of desperate Iraqi soldiers surrendered to the advancing coalition forces. The allies achieved a stunning victory in the ground war, successfully liberating Kuwait after only one hundred hours of combat.

The Battle of Khafji

Even though Iraq had suffered terrible damage to its capital city of Baghdad and its military strength during the six weeks of allied air attacks, Hussein remained confident that he could win a ground war. After all, he commanded the fourth-largest army in the world, with nearly one million soldiers. More than half of these soldiers were stationed in and around Kuwait. In addition, Hussein's army was equipped with large quantities of modern Soviet-built weapons and equipment, including four thousand tanks and three thousand long-range artillery (weapons used to launch missiles). Many of his soldiers had had recent combat experience in the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88). Finally, his troops had the advantage of fighting close to their main supply base.

Some historians claim that Hussein actually welcomed a ground war. The Iraqi leader felt that his soldiers were the best defensive fighters in the world. He also thought that the United States and its allies would give up if they started to suffer massive casualties (people killed and wounded in battle). As quoted in The Persian Gulf War by Zachary Kent, Hussein warned coalition leaders that his army would engage in "the mother of all battles" and threatened that "whoever collides with Iraq will find columns of dead bodies, which may have a beginning but not an end."

Hussein had tried to prove the strength of his ground forces a few weeks before the coalition launched its ground war. At the end of January he ordered Iraqi troops to make a surprise attack on the town of Khafji, Saudi Arabia. Khafji was a small beachside town located six miles from the Kuwaiti border. The residents of Khafji had abandoned the town two weeks earlier, when the coalition had begun bombing targets in Kuwait. But Khafji still served as a base for a small force of U.S. Marines and Saudi soldiers who were spying on the sixty thousand Iraqi troops in the area.

On January 30 between eight hundred and one thousand Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles rolled into Khafji and took over the town. The allied soldiers managed to hide from the Iraqi invaders for thirty-six hours until help arrived. With the support of U.S. artillery, troops from Saudi Arabia and the nearby Persian Gulf country of Qatar fought an intense day-long battle and reclaimed the town. An American journalist who arrived in Khafji a short time later recalled the scene: "Numerous Iraqi, Saudi, and Qatari armored vehicles, some with smoke pouring from the turrets [armored structures that protect mounted guns], lay abandoned in the streets, several still holding the charred bodies of soldiers. Buildings and walls were pockmarked with bullet holes and, in many places, shattered by heavy shells," Chris Hedges wrote in the New York Times. "The exhausted Saudi troops, their eyes red after two days of fighting, turned to the few onlookers along the road, raised their weapons over their heads, and shouted 'Allah akhbar!'—God is great!"

The Battle of Khafji was the first ground battle of the Persian Gulf War. Thirty Iraqi soldiers were killed in the fighting, thirty-seven more were wounded, and five hundred were taken prisoner. Eighteen soldiers from the Saudi army were killed and twenty-nine were wounded. Eleven U.S. Marines were also killed during the battle when an American warplane accidentally destroyed their light-armored vehicle. Military experts felt that Hussein had attacked Khafji in order to demonstrate the toughness, discipline, and morale of his army. He may have thought that capturing a town in Saudi Arabia would intimidate coalition leaders and make them reluctant to engage in a ground war. But the commander of the allied forces, U.S. General Norman Schwarzkopf (1934–), was not impressed. According to Understanding the Crisis in the Persian Gulf by Peter Cipkowski, he called the Battle of Khafji "as significant as a mosquito on an elephant."

Coalition leaders plan a deception

Though Schwarzkopf downplayed the significance of the Battle of Khafji, it was certainly not the way he and other coalition leaders wanted the ground war to begin. They wanted to wait until the air war had wiped out much of Iraq's military capability. But they knew that an air assault alone would probably not drive the Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. So they eventually planned to launch an all-out attack on the Iraqi army's defensive positions in Kuwait using artillery, tanks, and infantry (foot soldiers). The goal of the ground war was to seize and hold territory in Kuwait until the entire country was under allied control.

Instead of simply attacking the Iraqi defensive positions from the front, however, coalition leaders decided to try to circle around the Iraqi forces in Kuwait and also attack them from the rear. The success of this plan depended on tricking Iraq's military commanders into thinking that the main attack would come from Saudi Arabia (to the south of Kuwait) and the Persian Gulf (east of Kuwait). In the meantime, allied forces planned to secretly move into Iraq (to the west and north of Kuwait). This task was made easier by the fact that the allied air campaign had destroyed Iraq's air defenses, which prevented Iraqi commanders from seeing what was going on around them on the ground.

Coalition leaders came up with a complicated scheme to keep the Iraqi army's attention focused on the south and east. For example, thirty-one allied ships sailed through the Persian Gulf and took positions close to the Kuwaiti coast. These ships carried seventeen thousand amphibious (combined land and sea) forces that made practice landings on the shore. These maneuvers were intended to convince the Iraqis that the allied assault would come from the Persian Gulf.

A few days before the deadline, Schwarzkopf sent two U.S. Marine task forces with several hundred troops across the Saudi border into Kuwait. Their mission was to clear paths through the Iraqi defenses so that allied tanks and troops could pass through. The Iraqi army had constructed defensive barriers that included rolls of barbed wire, land mines (bombs hidden beneath the ground so that they explode when someone steps on them), walls of sand called berms, and trenches to trap tanks. The Marines broke through these barriers and took up positions a dozen miles into Kuwait. These actions were intended to convince Iraqi commanders that the coalition would attack from the south as soon as the deadline passed.

In the meantime, a large coalition attack force called the VII Corps secretly moved west along the Saudi Arabia–Kuwait border and then north into Iraq. The VII Corps included 250,000 allied troops; thousands of tanks and armored vehicles; hundreds of heavy artillery guns; and enough fuel, ammunition, and supplies to last for 60 days of fighting. They moved 500 miles (800 kilometers) without being detected and set up positions that trapped the Iraqi military in Kuwait. "I can't really recall any time in the annals of military history when this number of forces have moved over this distance to put themselves in a position to be able to attack," Schwarzkopf wrote in his book It Doesn't Take a Hero. "It was an absolute gigantic accomplishment."

The ground war begins

With the allied forces in place, coalition leaders were ready to launch the ground war if Iraqi troops failed to leave Kuwait by the deadline. The coalition ground forces consisted of 700,000 soldiers from 21 different countries. The majority of these soldiers, approximately 425,000, came from the United States. Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations contributed 145,000 troops, Egypt added another 40,000, and Great Britain provided 25,000. Many of these soldiers had been stationed in Saudi Arabia for several months and were well trained in desert warfare. The coalition also had more than 100 warships in the Persian Gulf and nearly 2,000 warplanes available for combat missions. They faced roughly 545,000 Iraqi troops that were dug into a series of defensive lines along the Kuwaiti border.

Coalition leaders launched the ground war at 4:00 AM local time on February 24. Back in the United States, where the time difference made it the night of February 23, President Bush announced in a televised speech that "the liberation of Kuwait has now entered a final phase." More than two hundred thousand allied troops swept into Kuwait from Saudi Arabia in the south in the most dramatic armored attack since World War II (1939–45). The columns of tanks encountered little resistance and easily broke through the Iraqi defenses. They reached the outskirts of Kuwait City within twenty-four hours.

The liberation of Kuwait City

As the coalition forces approached Kuwait's capital, the Iraqi defensive lines seemed to fall apart. Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts and surrendered to the allied troops in waves. Many of these soldiers were desperate for food and water, and some of them had been wounded in the allied air attacks. Coalition forces ended up taking more than five thousand prisoners in the first ten hours of the battle, and thousands of other Iraqi soldiers surrendered in the next few days.

The desperation of some of the Iraqi troops led to some strange encounters. In one instance, an American pilot was forced to eject from his plane and parachute into the desert. When he landed, dozens of Iraqi troops surrounded him and began trying to surrender to him. In another case, some American soldiers became separated from their unit when their Humvee (short for High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle) got stuck in the mud. An Iraqi tank pulled their vehicle out and then surrendered to them. The coalition forces had not expected so many Iraqis to surrender and were not prepared to handle it. They had no way of caring for so many prisoners, and mass surrenders slowed the progress of some units.

Despite this unexpected situation, the coalition forces were ready to reclaim Kuwait City by February 27. The American troops stepped aside to give Arab forces the glory of liberating the capital. Thousands of happy Kuwaiti citizens rushed to greet the soldiers. "Six months and 25 days after Iraqi tanks crushed Kuwait beneath their treads, another column of armored vehicles rumbled into the capital city," Bruce W. Nelan remembered in Time.

Civilian [people not involved in the war, including women and children] cars formed a convoy around them, horns honking, flags waving. Crowds along the way danced and chanted, 'Allah akhbar!', 'U.S.A.! U.S.A.!', and 'Thank you, thank you!' Thousands swarmed onto the streets, embracing and kissing the arriving soldiers.

In the meantime, the VII Corps continued moving northward across Iraq in an attempt to surround the Iraqi forces in Kuwait. They soon captured Iraq's Al Salman airfield and began using it as a base for coalition air support. While the allies were liberating Kuwait City on February 27, the VII Corps punched through Iraqi defenses to reach the Euphrates River, cutting off the main escape route for Hussein's troops in Kuwait. The Iraqi occupying forces were trapped.

Many Iraqi units tried to retreat by using the main highway from Kuwait City to the city of Basra in southern Iraq. Some Iraqi soldiers fled in stolen cars and trucks loaded with valuables they had taken from Kuwaiti homes and businesses. But they soon came under attack by coalition tanks, artillery, and air strikes. These attacks turned the road to Basra into a "Highway of Death," creating a 3-mile-long (5-kilometer-long) stretch of road littered with abandoned or burning vehicles. Some allied troops were later criticized for attacking the Iraqi forces while they were attempting to retreat.

Coalition achieves victory in one hundred hours

By the night of February 27, the U.S.-led coalition had taken control of Kuwait as well as 15 percent of Iraq, and Hussein's military forces were in full retreat. President Bush appeared on national television to tell the American people that the Persian Gulf War was over. "Kuwait is liberated. Iraq's army is defeated," he stated, as quoted in A Critical Analysis of the Gulf War by Colonel Henry G. Summers. "Kuwait is once more in the hands of Kuwaitis in control of their own destiny. We share in their joy, a joy tempered [lessened] only by our compassion for their ordeal." Bush ordered a cease-fire to take effect at midnight Washington time on February 27. "Exactly 100 hours since ground operations commenced [began] and six weeks since the start of Desert Storm, all U.S. and coalition forces will suspend offensive combat operations," he explained.

Hussein ordered his troops to stop fighting the following day. He also sent Iraqi military commanders to meet with coalition leaders to discuss an unconditional surrender. On March 3 Iraq agreed to comply with all United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions regarding its occupation of Kuwait. (The Security Council is the division of the United Nations charged with maintaining international peace and security. It consists of five permanent member nations and ten elected members that serve two-year terms.) The following day Iraq began releasing coalition prisoners of war. On March 14 the emir (ruler) of Kuwait returned home and reclaimed control of the government.

The official end of the Persian Gulf War came on April 3, when the Security Council passed Resolution 687. This resolution required both Iraq and Kuwait to respect the border between the two countries and offered UN troops to guarantee the border if necessary. It also required Iraq to destroy or remove all of its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons and provided for UN inspectors to monitor the process. The resolution held Iraq financially responsible for damages caused by its occupation of Kuwait. It also lifted economic sanctions (trade restrictions intended to punish a country for breaking international law) on shipments of food to Iraq but left all other trade restrictions in place until Iraq disarmed. Iraq agreed to all elements of the resolution on April 6.

Iraq suffers a lopsided defeat

In four days of ground combat, coalition forces destroyed an estimated 3,000 Iraqi tanks, or about 75 percent of Hussein's tanks. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers were killed, and about 80,000 were captured by coalition forces. In contrast, the coalition suffered very light casualties, with a total of 240 soldiers killed and 776 wounded during the war. American casualties accounted for 148 of the dead and 458 of the wounded. Some historians claimed that the ratio of Iraqi losses to coalition losses was 1,000 to 1, which made the Persian Gulf War one of the most lopsided in the history of warfare.

The number of casualties among Iraqi civilians was difficult to estimate because Hussein never released that information. Some people said that up to one hundred thousand Iraqi civilians may have been killed or wounded in the war, though military experts later lowered that number to between twenty thousand and thirty-five thousand casualties. Many Iraqis were killed or wounded during allied air strikes against Baghdad. Some bombs missed their targets, while others were intentionally aimed at public highways and other facilities that were used for both military and civilian purposes. Other Iraqi civilians died from a lack of food and water or from the spread of infectious diseases during the war.

The U.S.-led coalition's decisive victory over Iraq in the Persian Gulf War surprised many observers. According to Understanding the Crisis in the Persian Gulf, even General Schwarzkopf admitted that "We certainly did not expect it to go this way." Since the end of the war, many people have tried to figure out why the coalition won so easily. Some said it was because the coalition had five months to prepare for the war. Others pointed to the quantity and quality of Saudi air bases, which helped to overcome Iraq's "home-field advantage." Still others gave the credit to superior coalition leadership, well-trained and disciplined U.S. troops, or revolutionary American military technology. Finally, some experts blamed Saddam Hussein for Iraq's terrible defeat, arguing that his overconfidence and strategic errors cost the lives of thousands of his people.