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Iraqis in Full Retreat, U.S. Says : Marines in Kuwait City; Bush Demands Surrender : Gulf War: Republican Guard is cut off and attacked by allies. One elite division is reported 'virtually destroyed.' Two others try to flee.

February 27, 1991|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — U.S. Marines entered the capital of Kuwait, and coalition forces cut off the main body of Iraq's elite Republican Guard on Tuesday as Saddam Hussein's armies reeled and fled before a massive allied air and land offensive.

"The Iraqi army is in full retreat, although there is some fighting going on," Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Kelly, chief of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Washington. "Tomorrow, when the sun comes up, the question in my mind is whether the enemy is going to be there."

The Marines--a force composed of small reconnaissance units--moved into Kuwait city after a daylong advance through wind-swept rain along the Persian Gulf coast. Kuwaiti troops joined them in the capital soon afterward, raising their national flag in the center of town.

The advances in Kuwait came as allied forces launched the climactic battle of the Gulf War late Tuesday, sending U.S. airborne divisions, British tank forces and the heaviest concentration of American armor since World War II against Iraq's elite Republican Guard near the southeastern Iraqi city of Basra.

Scarcely four days into the massive ground war, coalition troops had pushed deeply into Kuwait and Iraq on three major fronts--along the coast, along the western Kuwaiti border and farther west, up through southeastern Iraq.

By dawn today, the allies had destroyed or neutralized 27 Iraqi divisions--a total of more than 270,000 men, or roughly half of the troops Hussein had deployed in Kuwait and southeastern Iraq, according to Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal. More than 30,000 others had surrendered, and still more began retreating to the north.

But just because some of Hussein's troops were moving out of Kuwait did not mean they were abandoning their weapons or giving up the fight entirely, the U.S. Central Command said. Instead, some appeared to be pulling back to regroup.

"Through the night and into the day tomorrow, we will continue to press the battle," Gen. Kelly told a Pentagon briefing Tuesday afternoon. "We are still engaged in combat, and we will not let up."

Kelly said that since the beginning of the war, coalition forces had destroyed 2,085 Iraqi tanks, about 50% of Hussein's original complement; 962 armored vehicles, or about one-third, and 1,505 artillery pieces, or about 48%.

U.S. casualties in the ground war held at four dead and 21 wounded. Among the joint Arab forces, the death toll rose to 13 with 43 wounded, Saudi military officials said.

The Pentagon reported that the Republican Guard--on which Hussein had been depending as the backbone of his fighting force--was isolated and in "deep, deep trouble."

Three Republican Guard divisions were engaged by elements of the U.S. Army's VII Corps, senior Pentagon officials said. Early reports from Riyadh indicated that one of the guard divisions had been "virtually destroyed" while attempting to provide cover fire as the other two tried to flee.

With a French tank division cutting off escape to the west and two U.S. armored cavalry regiments providing additional mobility to the firepower and unchallenged air supremacy of the allies, U.S. strategists said they expected the coalition to trap and crush the Republican Guard's remaining forces.

"We've got them where we want them," said a senior military officer in Riyadh. "We're grabbing onto them and holding onto them, like a junkyard bulldog."

In an early indication of how the battle may continue to develop, Apache helicopters and ground forces from the U.S. 24th Mechanized Division spotted a convoy of Republican Guard trucks attempting to flee northward, toward Baghdad, early this morning and destroyed 50 top-of-the-line T-72 tanks, officials said.

In other developments

* French forces, supported by U.S. artillery, captured a key air base in southeastern Iraq, according to media pool reports censored to delete place names and locations. A northbound highway in the area, code-named "Texas" by the allies, was reported packed with French and U.S. military vehicles headed for a further push into Iraqi territory. Dozens of Iraqi troops dropped their weapons in an effort to surrender, but there were no military police immediately available to take them into custody, according to the reports.

* No amphibious assault on the Kuwaiti coast has been needed to support the allied ground assault against Iraqi forces in Kuwait city, the Pentagon said. An estimated 18,000 U.S. Marines on 35 ships had been rehearsing for possible landings for more than a month. "We're already up to the outskirts of Kuwait city," Gen. Kelly said. "So there's not a great reason to conduct that amphibious campaign."

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