The Battle of Khafji: Iraq vs. Saudi Arabia

On the 2nd of August, 1990, 120,000 Iraqi troops and 2,000 tanks fanned into Kuwait, quickly overwhelming their poor security forces and allowing Hussein to declare Kuwait annexed in less than a week. It was no longer a sovereign state, but instead Iraq's 19th province. The United Nations responded at speed, condemning the invasion, demanding that Iraq withdraw and return Kuwaiti property, and imposing an embargo on Iraq. Iraqi troops continued through Kuwait to its southern border, and began to amass forces which looked as if they would be used against Saudi Arabia. They breached the border at several points. Obviously, Iraqi hegemony of the region's oil and the increasing influence of its unstable dictator Saddam Hussein was undesirable for both the Arab nations and the Western World. The United States began to take action to defend Saudi Arabia, and the coalition behind them would eventually grow to 30 countries in the military coalition with a further 18 providing economic or humanitarian aid.

So Operation Desert Shield was born, and it soon grew to become the largest deployment of United States troops since the Vietnam War. When it became clear that the Iraqis were not going to withdraw from the border, and after failed peace talks at Geneva, Operation Desert Storm began with an air attack made by an Apache helicopter on Jan 17 at 2:38 a.m. (local time). Marlin Fitzwater made the first public announcement of the operation, "The liberation of Kuwait has begun..." The first major ground action of the war occured in Khafji, a deserted coastal city in Saudi Arabia, between Iraqi forces and forces from Saudi Arabia and the emirate of Qatar, backed by United States artillery and air strikes.

The Iraqis had captured the Saudi town on January 29th, along with making many other probes into Saudi territory. Upon capturing Khafji Saddam Hussein declared that this was "the beginning and omen of the thundering storm that will blow on the Arabian desert." At the time, many commentators believed that Saddam was aiming for a political rather than a military victory. The town of Khafji was of no military significance, and when the Iraqi tanks and troops arrived the token garrison of Saudi marines had withdrawn to beyond the city limits. Of more interest were 12 U.S. marines who were conducting routine intelligence-gathering five miles from the city when the Iraqi offensive began. It came at such speed that the Marines reported that the first thing they knew of it was when an Iraqi APC suddenly appeared, and the Marines quickly ran to their Humvee's and sped south into the town. Baghdad Radio announced -

"We expelled the Americans from the Arab territory. . . . Our heroic forces attacked the treacherous enemy . . . and they fled like mice."

In fact, the Marines hadn't fled. They took up positions in the upper storeys of buildings in Khafji, where they remained until its liberation. They used their position to use encrypted radios to communicate with U.S. forces, transmitting their location and calling in air strikes against Iraqi positions. The predicament of the Marines and the need for positive propaganda spurred the Saudi Arabian and Qatari forces to take quick action to regain the town - although the town was of little strategic importance, it was necessary to repel this attack as the other recent incurcions in Saudi territory had been repelled (at the cost of 11 dead U.S. marines.) It was left to the Saudis to regain the town, as it lay in a sector for which they had the responsibility of defending. The town of 45,000 inhabitants was virtually deserted of civilians, and so air and artillery strikes could be carried out with impunity.

As Saudi and Qatari troops moved against the 400-600 Iraqi troops and 40-45 tanks in Khafji, United States marine aviators provided air support from Cobra gunships. Troops had begun to move into position less than 24 hours after the Iraqis had seized the town, and by Febuary 1st it was liberated. A Qatari paper recorded that -

"Our history will record with letters of light what happened (at Khafji) for being the first battle which our (Qatari) modern army has ever fought, as well as for having been waged in conjunction with our brothers the Saudi and the multinational forces in order to face an evil aggressor.... The stand of our heroic soldiers in yesterday's battle has intensified the confidence which we already had in them, and what we have always known about their high fighting ability."

Arab public opinion continued to be divided - Jordan, among others, supported the aggression against Saudi Arabia (as they had done against Kuwait.) Attacking Saudi Arabia and dropping missiles on Israel made Saddam Hussein a regional hero in the eyes of some. Of course, he could never have hoped to hold the town for long, but it did create a diversion and send a message of intent to the Saudis, as well as helping to further divide the Arab world. If he had hoped to divide Western public opinion he failed to a large extent, and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf was quick to dismiss the action as insignificant.

On 24th Febuary, coalition forces began the ground campaign against Iraq in earnest under the name of Operation Desert Sabre (originally Operation Desert Sword), and the Iraqi military, exhausted and demoralized by weeks of airstrikes, with communications and supply lines cut by the same, collapsed in 100 hours. Khafji goes down in history not just because of its status as the first major ground action of the war, but lest we forget what might have become of Saudi Arabia were it not for the 500,000 United States troops in the region.

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