An Iraqi modification of the T-55 tank, codename Enigma, used during the battle.
Map of military operations during the liberation of Khafji.
Following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, he optimistically decided to pre-empt the impending ground war in the hope of provoking the Coalition before it was ready. If he seized the initiative and generated enough momentum, he reasoned, he could suck in the coalition forces piecemeal, inflict casualties and secure prisoners, thereby damaging coalition morale and unity in the glare of the world’s media.
Although it was anticipated that the fighting would take place largely in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and Iraq, there was concern that a major urban battle would have to be fought to liberate Kuwait City. A taste of potential things to come occurred on 30 January 1991 when an unexpected urban engagement was fought in the Saudi town of Khafji.
Kuwait’s large Wafra oilfield straddles the Kuwaiti–Saudi border and lies just to the west of the Kuwaiti town of Wafra. The nearest Saudi town is Khaji, which lies on the coast to the south-east about 20km from the Kuwaiti border. The Wafra oilfield is in a so-called neutral oil zone shared by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and was jointly operated by the Kuwait Oil Company and the American oil giant Texaco. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait shared the production. One of Saddam’s reasons for invading his neighbour was that the Kuwaitis were pumping out such large quantities of oil that it was forcing down global oil prices. This in turn was affecting Iraqi oil revenues at time when Saddam was trying to replenish his country’s coffers following the disastrous Iran–Iraq war.
Khafji first came to notice on 16 January 1991 when an oil storage tank was struck by Iraqi shelling. The town formed the only junction on the coastal road linking Saudi Arabia with Kuwait to the north and Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman to the south. Saddam’s artillery, sited beyond the Kuwaiti border, heralded his campaign of environmental vandalism, during which he wrecked Kuwait’s oilfields. The shelling caused a major fire and a billowing cloud of black smoke lingered over the town like some ominous storm warning.
As Khafji was well within Iraqi artillery range, coalition forces were obliged to remain far to the south, in effect leaving the town undefended. In light of the danger, the town’s population of some 15,000 people was quickly evacuated. The whole world knew that Khafji had been empty for two weeks after global news networks broadcast scenes of the dust-blown empty streets. It was a vacuum that Saddam intended to fill. As it had been evacuated, there was no risk of civilian casualties, but unfortunately for the Iraqis the town was open plan, with mainly two-storey buildings. Therefore rather than providing a defender’s paradise, it actually gave them nowhere to hide.
In hindsight it seems a foolhardy operation, but at the time it presented a good opportunity to Saddam. The town was close to Iraqi defensive forces within the KTO that could provide cover; it was within easy reach of the Iraqi Air Force and, being on the coast, the Iraqi Navy could also intervene. Furthermore the area was defended largely by Saudi forces, which Saddam may have felt would be a soft option. The neighbouring US Marines were also to be drawn into the town and pinned down by a frontal attack. A flanking Iraqi tank force was then to strike them from the west, whilst to the east troops were to be landed by the Iraqi Navy. Saddam planned to make a total of four forays along the border from Wafra eastward to Khafji on the coast.
Just across the Kuwaiti border Saddam’s spearhead for the Khafji attack consisted of the elite 5th Mechanized Division. (In organizational terms, Iraqi mechanized divisions had two mechanized brigades and one armoured brigade, while armoured divisions had two armoured brigades and one mechanized brigade. Armoured brigades had three armoured battalions and one mechanized battalion, while mechanized brigades had three mechanized battalions and a tank battalion.) The 5th Division’s parent corps planned to launch a simultaneous four-pronged assault. It is unclear if it was part of a wider attack down the Wadi al-Batin, though the lack of adequate air cover made this unlikely. However, to reinforce the attack on Khafji three other mechanized divisions, comprising some 60,000 men and 240 tanks, were gathered near Wafra in Kuwait. It is notable that the elite Republican Guard was not assigned any part in this operation. The other key player, the Iraqi Air Force, was also conspicuous by its complete absence.
It was the Saudis who would bear the brunt of Saddam’s assault at Khafji. Six days after the bombardment began, Iraqi armoured forces were detected deploying a convoy towards Saudi Arabia. The coalition response was swift and an air strike destroyed fifty-six vehicles. Normally, once a hit was scored, the Iraqi crews of any neighbouring vehicles would abandon their equipment and run, leaving them to be picked off.
Leading elements of the Iraqi 5th Mechanized Division, up to brigade strength (three or four battalions), comprising some 2,000 men with fifty T-54/55 main battle tanks and BMP/YW 531 tracked APCs, moved out over a 50-mile front on the night of 29 January. They crossed the Kuwaiti border undetected and pushed south, supported by seventeen fast patrol boats, which moved down the coast bearing commando landing parties.
The RAF pounced on the naval element of the assault, hitting at least two of the vessels and scattering the others. The Royal Navy also attacked Iraqi patrol boats that may have been intended for the Khafji operation on 29 January 1991, when the British frigate HMS Gloucester launched Lynx helicopters armed with Sea Skua missiles. A second convoy appeared the following day, including an Iraqi minesweeper, three fast attack boats and three landing ships. RAF Jaguar and USAF A-6 jets attacked them. In the desperate Battle of Bubiyan Island twenty Iraqi naval craft attempted to flee to Iranian waters. Chase was given and only two damaged vessels survived the aerial onslaught; the rest were left blazing wrecks.
In the face of Saddam’s incursion, the Coalition’s first move was to cut his lines of communication between Kuwait and Khafji. British RAF Jaguar jets and American A-10 Thunderbolt tank-busting aircraft were despatched to attack any forces north of the town. American Marine Corps Cobra attack helicopters and 155mm artillery were also used to seal off the town.
About 90km from the coast a supporting Iraqi tank brigade ran into the US 1st Marine Division’s light armored infantry battalion. The firefight that followed involved American attack helicopters and A-10s, and Saddam’s forces lost twenty-four tanks and thirteen other vehicles. An Iraqi tank managed to account for a single Marine Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV), whilst a second was inadvertently destroyed by friendly fire. The Americans suffered eleven dead, seven of them in the friendly fire incident. This resulted in aerial recognition signs being added to every coalition vehicle, with inverted white Vs being painted on the sides and an orange marker on the top.
A second supporting Iraqi brigade bounced off the US 2nd Marine Division’s Light Armored Infantry Battalion. One LAV with tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided (TOW) missiles accounted for two Iraqi tanks. To the west of the town the Iraqi 15th Mechanized Regiment ran into a Qatari tank unit. All these Iraqi forces also suffered air attacks and fell back, losing eighty vehicles outside Khafji. Remarkably, the Iraqis’ other armoured battalion, however, was to push aside a screening Saudi force and occupy Khafji.
Late on 29 January, or early on the 30th, the Saudis heard that fifty-seven Iraqi armoured vehicles were heading towards Khafji’s desalination plant. A company of lightly armed Saudi Marines was quickly withdrawn from the town. The initial slowness of coalition air forces to respond to this threat was due to the American Marines struggling to turn back elements of the 20th Mechanized Brigade and 26th Armoured Brigade further west.
A dozen Kuwaiti soldiers were occupying a bunker in the middle of the town, from where they had been reporting on oil slicks. The BBC correspondent David Shukman scathingly reported, ‘Just as Kuwaiti troops saw no point in putting up a fight when their country was invaded, so they judged it useless to resist on the moonlight night of 29 January when Iraqi tanks rolled forward into Khafji. Following the example set by their emir on 2 August , the Kuwaitis jumped into their private cars, which were parked next to the bunker, and fled for their lives.’
‘The Iraqi attack came as a surprise,’ recalled Alan Munro, Britain’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia at the time. ‘Indeed, the press first came to hear of it when a correspondent tried to call the town’s hotel and found an Iraqi soldier answering the call.’
During the early hours a flight of Cobra helicopters from the US 369th Gunfighter Wing hunted down Iraqi armour using night-vision goggles but had to return to base when they ran low on fuel. They were replaced by four more Cobras, which destroyed a platoon-sized mechanized force. By about 5.00 am the Saudis had realized that Saddam really meant business, as about twelve Iraqi armoured vehicles were observed on the western edge of the town. Nevertheless, no Iraqi tanks entered Khafji; they had all been knocked out to the north, although some armoured fighting vehicles did get in.
Initially the Saudi commander, Prince Khalid Bin Sultan al-Saud, panicked, because it had been his decision to remove the Khafji garrison. It also seems he may not have informed his uncle King Fahd, who was understandably furious that Saddam was now occupying part of his kingdom. General Schwarzkopf was horrified when he was informed that King Fahd wanted Khafji flattened by American bombers. ‘I am sorry,’ responded Schwarzkopf, ‘we don’t conduct ourselves that way. Can you imagine how it would look in the eyes of the world if the United States of America bombed a Saudi town into rubble just because a few Iraqis were there?’
The following day, under a relentless assault from A-10s, the other two attacking Iraqi battalions failed to get through. Inside Khafji, although a brigade of 2,000 men had been thrown into the attack, the Iraqis only numbered about 600 defenders with infantry support weapons and some tanks on the outskirts. This solitary battalion, acting as Saddam’s fist in Saudi Arabia, was to hold out bravely for two days. Although the town had no real military value, the Coalition could not leave it. Aside from the inevitable loss of face, two US Marine reconnaissance parties were trapped in Khafji along with the Iraqi soldiers.