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Schwarzkopf Revels in a Moment of Glory : Strategy: The allied commander tells a media briefing how he and the allies pulled off what shapes up to be the biggest victory of his career.

February 28, 1991|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Gone were the cautious disclaimers and reminders of operational security.

It was time to boast. And boast he did.

With the air of a commander who has just won his biggest battle, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf strode into the familiar briefing room and took charge.

He teased, scolded, scoffed and led journalists through the detailed steps of a complex, massive and swift military campaign that he modestly labeled "brilliant."

Pointer in hand, charts at his side, the thick-waisted general in desert camouflage described the role of each brigade and division, each country and allied partner.

Confident of victory at hand, he was eager to praise his troops and just as eager to show scorn for his enemy.

What did he think of Saddam Hussein as a military strategist?

"Ha!" Schwarzkopf guffawed.

"As far as Saddam Hussein being a great military strategist," he said, jabbing a finger in the air, "he is neither a strategist, nor is he schooled in the operational arts, nor is he a tactician, nor is he a general, nor is he a soldier.

"Other than that, he's a great military man. I want you to know that."

Schwarzkopf, the commander of allied forces, exuded satisfaction at apparently having fooled the Iraqis into expecting a frontal offensive over the Saudi-Kuwaiti border. And he teased the press for its inadvertent role in it: Information on a fake amphibious landing, Imminent Thunder, was leaked to reporters--and extensively reported on--to make the Iraqis fortify their positions on the eastern shores of Kuwait.

In fact, the brunt of the allied offensive would come on a far-western flank.

Schwarzkopf boasted about the effectiveness of that western assault, also using the moment to reiterate that removing Iraqis from Kuwait, not destroying Iraq, was the military aim of the operation.

"Ladies and gentlemen . . . we were 150 miles away from Baghdad, and there was nobody between us and Baghdad," he beamed. "If it had been our intention to take Iraq, if it had been our intention to destroy the country, if it had been our intention to overrun the country, we could have done it unopposed, for all intents and purposes, from this position at that time. But that was not our intention. . . ."

In a quick exchange with a reporter, Schwarzkopf was reminded of his reference to "closing the gate of escape" with the western flanking maneuver.

"You said the gate was closed. Have you got ground forces blocking the roads to Basra?" he was asked in reference to a key Iraqi city.

"No," was the response.

"Well, is there any way that they can get out that way?" the reporter countered.

"No," Schwarzkopf replied, closing with a zinger: "That's why the gate's closed!"

In control from start to finish, Schwarzkopf did nevertheless allow his mood to swing. He became serious when he spoke of "unspeakable" atrocities against the Kuwaitis, and he seemed to choke up ever so slightly when he talked about his dead soldiers.

With so few killed in combat, Schwarzkopf said the low casualty figure was "miraculous."

But, he added, "It will never be miraculous to the families of those people. . . ."

When one reporter suggested that the border fortifications that allied troops had to breach were perhaps not as formidable as first thought, Schwarzkopf snapped back: "Have you ever been in a minefield?"

The reporter shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "No," he answered.

"All there's got to be is one mine, and that's intense," the general continued. "There were a lot of booby traps, a lot of barbed wire . . . not a fun place to be. I've got to tell you, probably one of the toughest things that anyone ever has to do is to go up there and walk into something like that . . . probably under fire by enemy artillery.

"That's all I can say," he ended.

The question might have struck a nerve: The Bravo Company of a battalion that Schwarzkopf commanded in Vietnam became stranded in a minefield. He crossed the field in South Vietnam's Batangan Peninsula to rescue a private whose leg was blown off.

But on Wednesday, the dark moments were few and Schwarzkopf seemed to revel in what might have been his last Gulf War briefing.

Through it all he held the rapt attention of hungry journalists, some of whom might even have gotten caught up in the general's enthusiasm.

"Congratulations!" a journalist said to the general as he completed his tale of stunning battlefield success. Schwarzkopf smiled and barreled out of the room.

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