The Battle of Khafji was the Persian Gulf War's first significant ground battle. It took place from 29 January to 1 February 1991 in and around the Saudi Arabian city of Khafji, and marked the end of the Coalition's air campaign over Kuwait and Iraq, which began on 17 January 1991.
Saddam Hussein, who had already tried and failed to drag Coalition troops into costly ground battles by bombing Saudi Arabian fortifications and oil storage tanks and firing Scud surface-to-surface missiles at Israel, authorized the invasion of Saudi Arabia from Kuwait's south. The 1st and 5th Mechanized Divisions, as well as the 3rd Armored Division, were ordered to launch a multi-pronged attack against Khafji, confronting Saudi Arabian, Kuwaiti, and US forces along the coast, with a supporting Iraqi commando force sent south by water to harass the Coalition's rear.
On the 29th of January, these three divisions launched an attack after being seriously battered by Coalition aircraft in the preceding days. The majority of their advances were rebuffed by US Marine Corps and Army units, although on the night of January 29–30, one of the Iraqi columns occupied Khafji. Two Saudi Arabian National Guard battalions and two Qatari tank companies attempted to reclaim control of the city between 30 January and 1 February, with the help of Coalition planes and US artillery. The city had been regained by 1 February, at a cost of 43 Coalition personnel killed and 52 injured. Between 60 and 300 Iraqi Army soldiers died, with an estimated 400 seized as prisoners of war.
Despite the fact that the invasion of Khafji was initially a propaganda win for the Ba'athist Iraqi state, Coalition forces quickly recovered the city. The conflict highlighted air power's capacity to assist ground forces.
On August 2, 1990, the Iraqi Army attacked and conquered Kuwait, a neighboring country. The invasion, which came after the inconclusive Iran–Iraq War and three decades of political struggle with Kuwait, gave Saddam Hussein the chance to divert domestic political attention and add Kuwait's oil resources to Iraq's own, a boon in a time when oil prices were falling.
As a result, the United Nations began to pass a series of resolutions calling on Iraqi forces to withdraw from Kuwait. Fearing that Saudi Arabia will be the next country to be invaded, the Saudi rulers demanded quick military assistance. As a result, the US began assembling soldiers from a number of countries on the Arabian peninsula, dubbed the Coalition. At first, Saddam Hussein tried to prevent Coalition military action by threatening the production and export of petroleum in Kuwait and Iraq. Iraq tested the use of explosives to demolish wellheads at the Ahmadi loading complex in December 1990, demonstrating their potential to harm Kuwait's petroleum infrastructure on a massive scale. Iraqi artillery destroyed an oil storage tank near Khafji, Saudi Arabia, on January 16, and the Ahmadi loading complex's pumps opened on January 19, spewing crude oil into the Persian Gulf. At a rate of 200,000 barrels per day, the oil spilled into the water, becoming one of the biggest environmental disasters in history.
Despite the Iraqi threats, on January 17, 1991, the Coalition commenced a 38-day aerial operation. Coalition aircraft flew an estimated 2,000 sorties per day, effectively crippling Iraqi air defense systems and completely destroying the Iraqi Air Force, whose daily sortie rate plunged from an estimated 200 per day before the conflict to nearly none by 17 January. Rather than being destroyed on the third day of the campaign, many Iraqi pilots flew their planes across the Iranian border. Command-and-control sites, bridges, railroads, and gasoline storage facilities were also targets of the air campaign.
Saddam Hussein was concerned that the air campaign would weaken Iraq's national spirit, despite saying, "The air force has never decided a war." The Iraqi leader also believed that the US would not be willing to lose a large number of troops in combat, so he attempted to drag Coalition ground troops into a decisive confrontation. He ordered Iraqi forces to launch Scud missiles against Israel in an attempt to trigger a ground battle, while continuing to threaten the destruction of Kuwaiti oilfields. After failing to elicit a large-scale ground conflict, Saddam Hussein chose to conduct a small invasion into Saudi Arabia in the hopes of inflicting huge damage on the Coalition army.
The Coalition's hopes for an Iraqi onslaught dwindled as the air campaign progressed. As a result, the XVIII Airborne Corps and the VII Corps were redeployed 480 kilometers (300 miles) west. The Coalition's leadership felt that if an Iraqi force went on the offensive, it would do so from the southern Kuwaiti oil fields of al-Wafra.
The Iraqi Army, which was structured into 51 divisions and included eight Republican Guard divisions, had between 350,000 and 500,000 soldiers in theater. Republican Guard divisions typically acquired the most up-to-date equipment; for example, Republican Guard divisions received the majority of the estimated 1,000 T-72 tanks in the Iraqi Army on the eve of the conflict. In the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations (KTO), the Iraqi Army also had nine heavy divisions, primarily made up of professional soldiers, but with weaponry that were of worse quality than those provided to the Republican Guard.
The T-55 or its Chinese equivalents, the Type 59 and Type 69, were used by the majority of non-Republican Guard armored formations. The rest of the 34 divisions were made up of untrained conscripts. These divisions were sent to route Coalition forces through a series of break spots along the front, allowing the Iraqi Army's heavy divisions and Republican Guard units to isolate and counterattack. The Iraqis, on the other hand, failed to account for tactics enabled by the Global Positioning System and other new technologies, leaving their western flank vulnerable.
The Coalition initially deployed approximately 200,000 soldiers, 750 aircraft, and 1,200 tanks in Saudi Arabia. This swiftly increased to 3,600 tanks and nearly 600,000 people, including over 500,000 Americans.
The Iraqi Third Corps, the Fourth Corps' 1st Mechanized Division, and a number of commando forces were also sent to the Saudi Arabia operation. The 3rd Armored Division and 5th Mechanized Division, as well as a number of infantry divisions, were part of the Third Corps, which was headed by Major General Salah Aboud Mahmoud (who would also lead the overall operation). Major General Ayad Khalil Zaki led the Fourth Corps. The 3rd Armored Division, the only non-Republican Guard force to have them, possessed a handful of T-72 tanks, while the other armored battalions had T-62s and T-55s, some of which had Iraqi appliqué armor akin to the Soviet bulging armor known as "brow" laminate armor or BDD.
These improved T-55s withstood MILAN anti-tank rockets during the assault of Khafji. The BMP-1 armored personnel vehicle, the BRDM-2 scout vehicle, and several types of artillery were also available to these divisions. Five infantry divisions were also stationed along this stretch of the front, though they were not selected to take part in the invasion. They were ordered to remain in their defensive positions along the border.
The Iraqi Army had assembled roughly 60,000 men over the border, near the Kuwaiti town of Wafra, in as many as 5 or 6 divisions, according to US Marine Corps surveillance. Infantry divisions were typically made up of three brigades with an attached commando unit, while some infantry divisions may have as many as eight brigades–however, most infantry divisions along the border were understaffed, owing to desertion.
Armored and mechanized divisions typically included three brigades, each with up to four combat battalions; depending on the division type, this was usually a three-to-one mix, with three mechanized battalions and one armored battalion, or vice versa. Given the number of the forces sent over the border, it is believed that the Iraqi Army intended to continue the offensive after capturing Khafji in order to grab the lucrative oil reserves of Dammam.
The assault would be a four-pronged assault. The 7th and 14th Infantry Divisions would be passed by the 1st Mechanized Division to cover the flank of the 3rd Armored Division, which would provide a blocking force west of Khafji while the 5th Mechanized Division took the town. The 1st and 3rd Mechanized divisions would then return to Kuwait, while the 5th Mechanized Division would wait until the Coalition launched a counteroffensive. The main goals were to kill a lot of Coalition soldiers and capture a lot of prisoners of war, which Saddam Hussein thought would be a great bargaining chip with the Coalition.
Many of the units were hit by Coalition aircraft as they pushed closer to the Saudi Arabian border. Around 1,000 Iraqi armored battle vehicles were assaulted by Harrier planes equipped with Rockeye cluster bombs in the Al-Wafrah woodland. A-10s attacked another Iraqi convoy of armored vehicles, destroying the first and last vehicles before targeting the stranded remainders. Because of these air raids, the majority of Iraqi forces stationed for the offensive were unable to participate.
|Weight||37.6 t (41.5 short tons)||36 t (39.7 tons)||40 t (44 tons)||13.9 t (15.3 tons)|
|Gun||125 mm 2A46D smoothbore (4.92 inches)||100 mm D-10T2S rifled (3.94 in)||115 mm U-5T smoothbore (4.53 in)||73 mm 2A2B Grom Low-pressure gun (2.9 in)|
|Ammunition||44 rounds||43 rounds||40 rounds||40 rounds|
|Road range||480 km (300 miles)||500 km (310.7 mi)||300–450 km (186–279 mi)||500 km (310.7 mi)|
|Engine output||780 PS (573.7 kW)||580 PS (426.6 kW)||580 PS (426.6 kW)||300 PS (220.6 kW)|
|Maximum speed||60 km/h (37.3 mph)||50 km/h (30 mph)||50 km/h (30 mph)||40 km/h (24.9 mph)|
Table: Iraqi armored fighting vehicles at Khafji
Observation posts were erected along the Kuwaiti-Saudi Arabian border during the buildup of forces to gather intelligence on Iraqi forces. US Navy SEALs, US Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance, and Army Special Forces forces manned these. The farthest east, on the shore, was observation post 8, and further seven observation posts were placed every 20 kilometers (12 miles) until the end of the "heel," the geographic panhandle of southernmost Kuwait. Observation stations 8 and 7 looked out over the coastal roadway leading to Khafji, which was thought to be the city's most likely invasion path. Three companies of the 1st Marine Division were stationed at observation posts 4, 5, and 6 (Task Force Shepard), while the 2nd Light Armored Infantry Battalion of the 2nd Marine Division put up a screen between observation post 1 and the Al-Wafrah oil fields. The 2nd Armored Division of the United States Army supported the Marines with its 1st Brigade, which provided much-needed armored support.
The 2nd Saudi Arabian National Guard Brigade, affiliated to Task Force Abu Bakr, was given responsibility for the defense of Khafji by the Saudi Arabians. Under observation post 7, the 5th Battalion of the 2nd Saudi Arabian National Guard Brigade set up a screen north and west of Khafji. A Saudi Arabian National Guard Brigade could contain up to four motorized battalions with three line companies apiece at the time. The brigade's nominal strength was reported to be at 5,000 men. The Tariq Task Force, made up of Saudi Arabian marines, a Moroccan motorized infantry battalion, and two Senegalese infantry companies, was also dispatched by the Saudi Arabians. Othman and Omar Task Forces, made up of two Mechanized Ministry of Defense and Aviation Brigades, provided screens around 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) south of the border. One battalion of Saudi Arabian National Guard and one battalion of Qatari tanks patrolled the route south of Khafji. The major fortifications of the country were positioned 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of the screen.
General Khaled bin Sultan led the majority of the Arab contingent. The Joint Forces Command-East defended the area near Khafji, while the Joint Forces Command-North defended the border between observation station 1 and the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border.
|Weight||36 t (39.7 short tons)||10 t (11.02 tons)||16.3 t (18 tons)|
|Gun||105 mm modele F1 rifled (4.13 inches)||90 mm Cockerill rifled (3.54 i)||25 mm autocannon (0.98 in)|
|Ammunition||50 rounds||39 rounds||420 rounds|
|Road range||600 km (370 mi)||643 km (400 mi)||660 km (410 mi)|
|Engine output||780 PS (573.7 kW)||202 PS (148.6 kW)||350 PS (257.4 kW)|
|Maximum speed||60 km/h (37.3 mph)||88 km/h (54.7 mph)||99 km/h (61.5 mph)|
Table: Coalition armored fighting vehicles at Khafji
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein met with the two Iraqi army corps commanders who would spearhead the operation on January 27, 1991, in Basra, and Major General Salah Mahmoud promised him that Khafji would be his by January 30. Saddam Hussein's convoy was assaulted by Coalition planes on his way back to Baghdad, but the Iraqi leader escaped unharmed.
The Coalition got several warnings on the 28th of January indicating an impending Iraqi onslaught. The Coalition was flying two brand-new E-8A Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) aircraft, which detected Iraqi soldiers' deployment and activity in the area opposite Khafji. Heavy Iraqi reconnoitering was also reported along the border by observation stations 2, 7 and 8, and their small teams of air-naval gunfire liaison Marines called in air and artillery strikes throughout the day. Lieutenant Colonel Richard Barry, commander of the 1st Surveillance, Reconnaissance, and Intelligence Group's forward headquarters, issued warnings to Central Command about an oncoming attack. However, CentCom chiefs were too engrossed with the air campaign to pay attention, and the Iraqi operation came as a shock.
Beginning of Iraqi Offensive: 29 January
On the night of January 29, roughly 2,000 Iraqi soldiers with several hundred armored battle vehicles marched south, beginning the Iraqi onslaught. According to a post-war analysis conducted by the US Air Force's Air University, Iraq planned to attack Khafji with the 3rd Armored Division and 5th Mechanized Division, with the 1st Mechanized Division assigned to guard the attacking force's western flank. The Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia was organized into three columns, with T-62 tanks and armored personnel carriers serving as the mainstays (APCs). The first ground engagement of the Gulf War took place near observation post 4 (OP-4), which was built on the Al-Zabr police headquarters. Iraq's 6th Armored Brigade, which had been instructed to occupy the heights above Al-Zabr, battled Coalition forces at Al-Zabr. U.S. Marines manning the observation station attempted to contact battalion headquarters at 20:00 hours after seeing huge formations of armored vehicles through their night vision systems. Because communication had been established earlier, it was assumed that the reconnaissance platoon's radios were jammed. Lieutenant Ross used runners to alert his platoon and continued trying to get through to higher headquarters and Company D, informing them of the approaching Iraqi force. Task Force Shepard was alerted to the threat because contact was not made until 20:30 hours. Coalition forces stationed at observation post 4 were minimally armed and could only fire TOW anti-tank missiles before requesting air support. By 21:30, several F-15E, F-16C, four A-10 Tank Killers, and three AC-130 gunships had arrived and intervened in a major firefight between Iraqi and Coalition ground forces at OP-4. The reconnaissance platoon stationed at OP-4 was the first to be attacked, and their departure from the conflict was aided by cover fire provided by another company. The soldiers stationed at OP-4's attempt to thwart or delay the Iraqi assault cost them several lives, and in the face of a fierce Iraqi counter-offensive, they were compelled to retreat south on orders from their commanding officer.
The company's platoon of LAV-25s and LAV-ATs (anti-tank variants) went to engage the Iraqi force to cover the withdrawal. One of the anti-tank vehicles opened fire on what it thought was an Iraqi tank after gaining authorization. Instead, a friendly LAV-AT a few hundred meters in front of it was destroyed by the missile. Despite the loss, the platoon proceeded forward and soon began fire with the LAV-25s' autocannons on the Iraqi tanks. The fire did not breach the armor of the tanks, but it did impair their optics, making them unable to fight back effectively.
A number of A-10 ground-attack aircraft arrived shortly after, but were unable to locate enemy targets, so they began dropping flares to illuminate the area. One of these flares fell on a friendly vehicle, and despite the fact that the vehicle radioed its location, it was attacked by an AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missile, killing everybody but the driver. The company was withdrawn after the tragedy, and the surviving vehicles were regrouped into another adjacent company. The Iraqi 6th Armored Brigade moved across the border to Al-Wafrah after observation post 4 was cleared, under heavy fire from Coalition aircraft. 11 coalition troops had been killed by friendly fire, while none had been killed by enemy fire.
The Iraqi 5th Mechanized Division entered the Saudi Arabian border near observation post 1 while the events at observation post 4 were happening. A column of 60–100 BMPs was reported by a company of the 2nd Light Infantry Armored Battalion, which was screening the Iraqi army. Coalition A-10s and Harrier jump aircraft engaged the column. After it, there was another column with an estimated 29 tanks. An anti-tank missile struck and destroyed one of the column's T-62 tanks. A-10s and F-16s supplied air support to the coalition, which engaged the Iraqi push through observation post 1 and eventually repulsed the attack back over the Kuwaiti border. Throughout the night and into the next morning, aircraft engaged the columns. Another column of Iraqi tanks approaching observation post 2 was also engaged by aircraft that night and repulsed.
A second Iraqi column crossed the Saudi Arabian border to the east, still along the coast, and headed for Khafji. The 5th Mechanized Battalion of the 2nd Saudi Arabian National Guard Brigade screened these Iraqi tanks. When this unit came under heavy fire, it withdrew since it had been ordered not to fight the Iraqi column. Similar screening operations were also carried out by elements of the 8th and 10th Saudi Arabian National Guard Brigades. The path to Khafji was left open due to the instruction not to engage. Another column of Iraqi T-55s rolled up to the Saudi Arabian border at one point, showing their intention to surrender. When Saudi Arabian forces neared, they reversed their turrets and started fire. A nearby AC-130 responded with air support, destroying 13 cars.
Despite numerous assaults from an AC-130, the Iraqi advance into Khafji proceeded on this area. Attempts by Saudi Arabian commanders to order more air strikes on the approaching Iraqi column were thwarted when the requested heavy air assistance did not arrive. On the 30th of January, around 00:30, Khafji was seized, trapping two six-man reconnaissance teams from the 1st Marine Division in the city. The teams took over two apartment complexes in the city's southern district and fired artillery at them to encourage the Iraqis to stop searching the area. Coalition air support, consisting of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, continued to target Iraqi tanks and artillery throughout the night.
Initial Response: 30 January
General Khaled bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia, alarmed by the occupation of Khafji, urged to US General Norman Schwarzkopf for a quick air assault against Iraqi forces in and around the city. However, this was rejected because the buildings would make it difficult for planes to detect targets without flying too close to them. Instead, it was determined that Arab ground forces would reclaim the city. The mission was assigned to the 7th Battalion of the 2nd Saudi Arabian National Guard Brigade, which was made up of Saudi Arabian infantry with V-150 armored cars and two Qatari tank companies. U.S. Army Special Forces and Marine Reconnaissance soldiers assisted them.
Lieutenant Colonel Matar of Saudi Arabia was assigned leadership of the unit, which marched out by 17:00 hours. The group was ordered to strike Khafji directly after meeting up with units of the US 3rd Marine Regiment south of the city. A platoon of Iraqi T-55s attacked south of the city, causing three T-55s to be destroyed by Qatari AMX-30s and a fourth Iraqi tank to be captured. The 10th Marine Regiment provided artillery fire in the absence of coordinated artillery assistance.
After the Iraqi residents opened fire, the initial attack on the city was called off, leading the Saudi Arabians to reinforce the 7th Battalion with two more companies from nearby Saudi Arabian battalions. A 15-minute preliminary barrage from US Marine artillery had preceded the effort to seize the city. However, one Saudi Arabian V-150 was destroyed by Iraqi fire.
Meanwhile, the 5th Battalion of the 2nd Saudi Arabian National Guard Brigade advanced north of Khafji to prevent Iraqi reinforcements from reaching the city. The 8th Ministry of Defense and Aviation Brigade bolstered this force, which was substantially helped by Coalition air support. Although the 8th Ministry of Defense and Aviation Brigade was forced to retreat the next morning due to friendly fire, Coalition aircraft effectively thwarted Iraqi attempts to send more troops down to Khafji, causing huge numbers of Iraqi troops to surrender to Saudi Arabian forces.
Two US Army heavy equipment carriers arrived in Khafji that night, reportedly lost, and were shot upon by Iraqi forces. The two drivers of the second truck were wounded and detained, despite the fact that one truck was able to turn around and flee. As a result, the 3rd Battalion 3rd Marine Regiment launched a rescue mission, sending a squad of 30 men to recover the two injured drivers. Despite encountering no significant opposition, they were unable to locate the two drivers who had been apprehended at this point. A burned-out Qatari AMX-30 with a dead crew was discovered by the Marines. Despite significant risk to their safety, an AC-130 conducting overwatch lingered past sunrise in the early morning hours. An Iraqi surface-to-air missile (SAM) shot it down, killing all 14 people on board.
Interdiction by Coalition aircraft and Saudi Arabian and Qatari ground forces was having an effect on Iraqi troops occupying the country. "The mother was slaughtering her children," Iraqi General Salah radioed in a request to withdraw, referring to Saddam Hussein's designation of the ground fight as the "mother of all battles." Coalition aircraft have performed at least 350 flights against Iraqi soldiers in the area since the start of the conflict, and on the night of January 30–31, Coalition air assistance began attacking Iraqi Third Corps units gathered on the Saudi Arabian border.
Recapture of Khafji: 31 January – 1 February
On the 31st of January, a new attempt to reclaim the city began. The attack began at 08:30 a.m., and was met with intense but generally inaccurate Iraqi fire. Three Saudi Arabian V-150 armored cars were taken out at close range by RPG-7s. The Saudi Arabian brigade's 8th battalion was ordered to arrive in the city by 10:00 a.m., while the 5th Battalion to the north battled another column of Iraqi tanks attempting to enter the city. The latter fight resulted in the loss of around 13 Iraqi tanks and armored personnel carriers, as well as the capture of 6 additional vehicles and 116 Iraqi soldiers, with the Saudi Arabian battalion losing two men killed and two others injured. From the northeast, the 8th Battalion attacked the city, teaming up with the 7th Battalion. These battalions cleared the city's southern section until the 7th Battalion retreated south around 18:30 hours to recuperate and rearm, while the 8th remained in Khafji. The two Qatari tank companies advanced north of the city to prevent Iraqi reinforcements, backed up by US Marine artillery and air assistance.
The 8th continued clearing structures, and the Saudi Arabians had lost around 18 dead and 50 wounded, as well as seven V-150 vehicles, by the time the 7th retreated to the south. Throughout the day and night, coalition aircraft continued to give heavy support. Coalition airpower "inflicted more damage on his brigade in half an hour than it had sustained in eight years of warfare against the Iranians," according to a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War. An Iraqi amphibious force was sent to land on the shore and move towards Khafji during the conflict. As the boats passed through the Persian Gulf on their way to Khafji, US and British planes intercepted them in the open and destroyed approximately 90% of the Iraqi amphibious force.
The Saudi and Kuwaiti soldiers resumed their operations the next day. Two Iraqi companies, each with roughly 20 armored vehicles, remained in the city overnight and did not attempt to escape out. While the Saudi Arabian 8th Battalion continued its operations in the city's southern sector, the 7th Battalion began clearing the city's northern sector. The city was conquered on February 1, 1991, after sporadic Iraqi resistance and most Iraqi forces surrendered on sight.
Coalition forces suffered 43 dead and 52 injuries during the engagement. 25 Americans were killed, 11 of whom were killed by friendly fire, and 14 airmen were killed when their AC-130 was shot down by Iraqi SAMs. In Khafji, two American soldiers were injured, and another two were taken.
Saudi Arabia suffered 18 fatalities and 50 injuries. Two Saudi main battle tanks and ten V-150 light armored vehicles were destroyed. In close-range fighting within Khafji, RPG-7 fire knocked out the majority of the V150s. A 100mm main gun shell from a T-55 hit one of the two, resulting in a catastrophic kill.
Iraq reported 71 deaths, 148 injuries, and 702 people missing. According to US sources present at the combat, 300 Iraqis were killed and at least 90 vehicles were destroyed. According to another account, 60 Iraqi soldiers were killed, at least 400 were taken prisoner, and at least 80 armored vehicles were destroyed; however, these deaths are ascribed to fighting both inside and directly north of Khafji.
Whatever the actual number of deaths, three Iraqi mechanized/armored divisions were annihilated.
The Iraqi seizure of Khafji was a big propaganda win for Iraq, with Iraqi media claiming on January 30 that they had "expelled Americans from Arab territory." The battle of Khafji was viewed as an Iraqi win by many in the Arab world, and Hussein made every attempt to transform the war into a political victory. On the other hand, as the conflict advanced, the US Armed Forces' faith in the capabilities of the Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti troops grew. Following Khafji, the Coalition's leadership began to perceive the Iraqi Army as a "hollow force," which gave them an indication of the kind of opposition they would meet during the Coalition's ground operation later that month. The Saudi Arabian administration saw the war as a big propaganda win, since it effectively defended its land.
Despite the success of the encounters between January 29 and February 1, the Coalition did not commence its primary push against Kuwait and Iraq until the night of February 24–25. The invasion of Iraq took around 48 hours to complete. The Battle of Khafji serves as a current illustration of air power's capacity to provide ground forces with support. It not only gave the Coalition an idea of how Operation Desert Storm would be fought, but it also hinted to future friendly-fire deaths, which accounted for roughly half of the Americans killed.