OUTSIDE KHAFJI, Saudi Arabia -- In the end, the United States and its allies won the Battle of Khafji -- but not until after 36 hours of helter-skelter confusion that at one point saw the Saudi tanks careening in a chaotic midnight retreat because brother Arab forces were accidentally blasting their position.
The Iraqi tanks clearly caught the U.S.-led alliance unprepared. After rumbling into this Saudi hamlet Tuesday night, they managed to keep fighting inside the town for long enough to claim victory in the first ground combat of the war. Then an Iraqi relief column fought in from the north and extracted some Iraqis still holding out inside Khafji.
"It could be a great political victory," acknowledged the U.S. Marines' artillery commander, Lt. Col. John Garrett, who helped the Saudis pound the Iraqi tank invaders into retreating back into Kuwait.
Correspondents visiting two forward Marine outposts without military escort yesterday got an unvarnished account of the battle that did not always dovetail with the version offered at the daily briefing in Riyadh.
From the opening moments of the Iraqi raid into Khafji, the United States and its allies were in hotter water than they disclosed at the time. The reason was that two six-man Marine reconnaissance teams were stuck in the middle of Khafji while the Iraqi tanks were shooting all around them.
With the Marine scouts pinned down in buildings by .50-caliber machine gun fire, the allied commanders on the scene decided they could not afford merely to surround the Iraqis and await their surrender.
They had to go on the attack. -- even if that meant destroying millions of dollars worth of recently constructed office buildings and homes in and around the port of Khafji.
After dark Wednesday, the Saudis -- accompanied by a U.S. military adviser -- decided to mount an Arab counterattack to help relieve pressure on the stranded scouts.
The Saudi tanks were to take the lead.
Their allies from the neighboring Persian Gulf country of Qatar were supposed to provide covering fire from their tanks.
The trouble was that the Qataris didn't know exactly where the Saudis were heading. This was a formula for failure.
"Some Saudi units moved in there at night," said Marine Capt. Kevin Monahan of Redwood City, Calif. "Obviously, this was their first attack, the first firefight of the war. It was at night, and there was some friendly fire."
The Saudis had punched their way back into the fringes of Khafji by late Wednesday, at which time they started taking "incoming" from their own allies.
The Saudi commanders ordered an immediate retreat that left the Iraqis in full control overnight of the center of Khafji.
By the account of several U.S. Marine officers who spent the night outside Khafji, the "friendly fire" came from the Qatari armored unit assigned to protect the Saudis from the rear.
It is unknown whether any Saudis were killed by the "friendly fire." But British Prime Minister John Major told reporters in London that Saudi losses in the Khafji fighting "have been fairly heavy."
Peter Dejong, an Associated Press photographer, told of driving into Khafji on the heels of a Saudi convoy. Suddenly the Saudis pivoted straight toward him and began rumbling back out of town.
"The Saudis pulled back real fast," Mr. Dejong said. "They started firing out at random. We got out of there."
The Marine battalion commander, Colonel Garrett, said the whole Saudi-Qatari attack was a direct result of the two U.S. scout teams' being stranded since the first day of the Iraqi attack.
"As far as I am concerned, the decisive reason for the Saudis making the [first] attack was because those two teams were there," said Colonel Garrett, 43, commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Marines from Hawaii.
Col. John Admire, who oversees the reconnaissance units, said they had been in Khafji on a routine intelligence-gathering mission when Iraqi troops and tanks rolled in late Tuesday. Colonel Admire said the recon teams initially stayed in town on their own volition to transmit by radio information on the Iraqi troops to allied forces. "By the time they determined that they were surrounded [by the Iraqis], it was too late" to pull out, the Marine officer said.
With the first Saudi attack a failure, and the Marines still stuck in the town, allied front-line commanders met in the dark outside Khafji to plan another rescue attempt before the 12 American scouts could be taken prisoner.
One planning session under the sky yielded a warning to forward-deployed Marine units that the Iraqis might be pushing south with many more tanks. Colonel Garrett recalled: "All the Saudis were there, and everyone was figuring out everyone's language when all of a sudden there was an order that we should go to MOPP Level Two [an alert status]. . . . We were putting on these [chemical] suits like the Michelin Man and having to do all this [preparation for battle] at the same time."
One consequence of the failed Saudi attack is that U.S. Marines got an assignment from the Saudis to lay howitzer shells on the Iraqi tanks.
Around dawn, the Marines outside Khafji fired a salvo of eight heavy artillery shells at Iraqi tank positions. "It was highly accurate," said Captain Monahan, who commands part of the front-line Marine artillery. "It was hitting targets. Since it was working, we were called on to fire another salvo."
Forward spotters later told Captain Monahan's unit that it had played a big part in destroying 17 Iraqi tanks. However, when the daily U.S. briefers in Riyadh told the story, they omitted all mention of the role of U.S. ground troops in retaking the port town.
"No Marine ground units were involved," Brig. Gen. Pat Stevens told reporters. Pressed on the question, he added: "We were not nTC engaged. U.S. forces were not engaged in that action."
The 12 Marines were subsequently rescued. Once safe, they told of a harrowing 36 hours in which they hid in buildings and called in allied artillery strikes to drive off the Iraqis when they got too close.
In two instances, Iraqis entered the ground floors of buildings where the men were hiding.
"The Marines could hear the footsteps. They could hear them enter -- and then leave," Colonel Admire said, adding that the soldiers had burned secret codes and messages to protect themselves and used coded radio messages to signal their locations and call in U.S. strikes.
Compared to the foul-ups surrounding the first Saudi attack, the second Saudi attack in daylight yesterday found the Saudis, Qataris and Americans cooperating with few difficulties.