WASHINGTON -- Iraqi troops were said to be massing in southern Kuwait last night, amid speculation that a new land assault on allied positions in the northern Saudi desert could be imminent.
U.S. Marines said they had been told that five or six Iraqi divisions -- as many as 60,000 troops -- were preparing for a possible attack near the Kuwaiti town of Wafra.
U.S. and Saudi officials said last night in the Saudi village of Khafji that four Iraqi mechanized brigades were on the move north of the border, with the possible intention of mounting a major attack.
Hours earlier, allied forces had reported that they had regained control of Khafji after a fierce firefight lasting more than 36 hours. Officials said Arab soldiers from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, supported by U.S. air and artillery fire, had finally driven Iraqi troops from the center of town. Allied reports said the Iraqis suffered casualties of about 200 dead and wounded. Reports of the number of Iraqi prisoners taken varied from 160 to more than 400.
Last night there were still pockets of Iraqi resistance in Khafji. U.S. Army Col. Jack Petri, a liaison officer with Saudi forces, called Khafji "pretty secure," but he said there was still "sporadic fire" coming from straggler Iraqi soldiers in some of the buildings. He said there were not enough Saudi troops on hand to clear the town building-by-building overnight.
Two U.S. Army soldiers, one male and one female, who according to some sources may have strayed into the village during an early stage of the battle, were reported missing by the U.S. Central Command.
The two were on a "transport mission" along the major military supply route in northern Saudi Arabia and were supposed to have been dozens of miles from the Khafji area, driving in another direction, military sources said.
Although U.S. policy forbids women from serving in combat units, they do serve in support units, which are often located very near the front lines, officials said.
Iraq earlier claimed that the Americans had been taken prisoner. If true, the unidentified female soldier would become the first U.S. servicewoman captured in the Persian Gulf war.
Baghdad radio said that she "will be given good treatment in accordance with the spirit of lofty Islamic laws."
There were also reports that a U.S. transport plane with 14 people aboard had been shot down by enemy ground fire. Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said the military would release no information on downed aircraft until all rescue efforts had been exhausted.
Refugees attempting to flee the fighting in Iraq said that eight U.S. soldiers, possibly those from the downed plane, had forcibly commandeered a vehicle on the highway from Baghdad to Jordan, wounding one person in the hand, before taking off in the direction of Saudi Arabia, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported.
While coalition forces fought to reclaim Khafji, allied aircraft heavily bombed a 10-mile-long Iraqi armored column headed for Saudi Arabia, according to a combat correspondent traveling with British troops.
A U.S. squadron commander said that up to 1,000 Iraqi military vehicles were moving through southern Kuwait toward the Saudi border.
"Roughly 800 to 1,000 vehicles are moving now . . . in columns, in small groups, in convoys," Lt. Col. Dick "Snake" White, commander of a squadron of Harrier jets, told pool reporters.
The official Iraqi News Agency claimed: "Iraq has taken the initiative in opening the pages of the showdown at the time and place it decides."
U.S. commanders have said that they would not attempt a ground invasion of Kuwait until ordered to do so by President Bush. Military analysts have suggested that a U.S.-led offensive may still be weeks away.
Mr. Bush indicated again that he was not yet ready to engage the Iraqis in a full-scale ground war, according to a group of Jewish leaders he met yesterday afternoon.
"He is not anxious at this point to enter into a ground war," said Shoshana S. Cardin of Baltimore, chairwoman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Mr. Bush also assured them that "there will be no intermittent cease-fire," Mrs. Cardin said. "The principles of the U.N. resolutions have to be adhered to, and therefore they will pursue the course until that time."
There has been speculation that the allied air campaign could be extended, possibly for another month or more, in hopes of forcing Iraq out of Kuwait without a costly ground battle. But the top U.S. commander in the gulf, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, strongly played down that notion.
Allied forces cannot "wait it out indefinitely," he told NBC-TV. "There's a . . . finite limit to the amount of ammunition and that sort of thing we have available to us."
Eleven Marines were killed and two others wounded in a skirmish with Iraqi forces near Wafra on Tuesday, the first allied ground combat deaths of the war. Military officials initially announced the toll at 12 dead but later revised the figure.
Pentagon officials said the U.S. Central Command in the Persian Gulf was investigating the possibility that the Marines could have been killed by weapons fired by American or other allied forces.
BTC Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the 11 had been aboard two light armored vehicles that were destroyed in the nighttime battle. He indicated that there had been at least one report from the battlefield that U.S. or allied weapons, so-called friendly fire, had been responsible.
"Is there a possibility that it was friendly fire? There is always a possibility," General Kelly said at a Pentagon briefing. "If that, in fact, is correct, it will come to light because everything does."
The general said that he believed enemy fire had been responsible for the deaths.
The clash took place in the open desert, near the Saudi-Kuwaiti border, about 50 miles from the coast, and lasted from late Tuesday until just before dawn Wednesday.
A total of 22 Iraqi tanks were reported destroyed in the battle, which was fought at close range. The Marines on the ground were assisted by Marine aviators and Air Force A-10 attack planes.
For the first time in three days, a Scud missile was fired at Israel but landed in the occupied West Bank, 15 miles away from its apparent target, Tel Aviv. There were no injuries or property damage reported.
Saudi officials said the leading edge of the gulf oil slick was south of the port town of Manifah, 60 miles from Jubail, site of the world's biggest desalination plant.