WASHINGTON -- Allied aircraft dealt heavy damage to Iraqi armored units in the southern Kuwaiti desert yesterday, apparently spoiling a large-scale ground attack on Saudi Arabia, military officials said.
The U.S.-led coalition in the Persian Gulf threw "every asset we have that's capable of attacking" against an Iraqi force gathering in the desert area north of the Saudi-Kuwaiti border, said Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly.
A senior U.S. official said the Iraqi troops included roughly 7,000 to 10,000 soldiers, as well as tanks and other armored combat vehicles, a far larger force than the ones that struck across the Saudi-Kuwaiti border earlier this week.
U.S. commanders acknowledge that they didn't know for certain whether Iraq was preparing to stage a new attack.
"We can't read the Iraqi high command or Saddam Hussein's mind," General Kelly said at a Pentagon briefing. "We didn't see any real pattern to it. It didn't look like an arrowhead coming down the road toward Saudi Arabia."
Heavy allied fire, including intensive bombing from B-52s and strikes by attack jets, forced the Iraqis to return to reinforced positions in the desert, officials added.
Some analysts have speculated that Iraq's ground assaults are designed to lure coalition forces into a premature invasion. But U.S. commanders have said they plan to stick to their war plan, which may call for weeks of additional bombing before a ground invasion commences.
President Bush, in a campaign-style tour of East Coast military bases yesterday, made that point again.
"We will conduct this conflict on our own timetable, not on SaddamHussein's timetable," he told families of U.S. servicemen Fort Stewart near Savannah, Ga.
"When we win -- and we will -- we will have taught a dangerous dictator and any tyrant tempted to follow in his footsteps that the U.S. has a new credibility and that what we say goes. There is no place for lawless aggression in the Persian Gulf or in this new world order that we are seeking to create."
In other action, a two-day battle for the coastal town of Khafji ended with the capture of more than 500 Iraqi prisoners.
No U.S. casualties were reported, but two U.S. soldiers, a man and a woman who may have strayed into the fighting, were still missing. The Pentagon identified Army Spc. Melissa A. Nealy, 20, as the first female U.S. soldier listed as missing in combat in the gulf war.
Meantime, Baghdad radio threatened to try captured U.S. and allied pilots as war criminals because of supposed allied air attacks on defenseless women and children. Eight U.S. fliers are being held prisoner and 23 others, many of them fliers, are listed as missing.
Iraq's Defense Ministry newspaper, al-Qadisiyah, said the Khafji incursion was "proof that Iraq still holds the initiative in the gulf war."
Witnesses to the struggle for Khafji reported seeing the charred remains of Saudi soldiers in their smoldering vehicles, and assessments varied widely. A British military spokesman, Royal Air Force Group Capt. Niall Irving, called it "a clear military disaster" for Iraq.
But other reports from the scene suggested that the U.S.-led coalition had been caught by surprise by the Iraqi advance and that the Iraqi defenders of the abandoned town had fought unexpectedly well.
"They were well-disciplined and good troops," Marine Cpl. Jeff Brown, 21, of Cincinnati, said of the Iraqis.
Special forces markings on the Iraqis' uniforms, and the sophisticated arsenal they brought to town, indicated that these were not the poorly trained, demoralized troops that allied commanders said were manning forward Iraqi positions.
"This is an effective fighting force. It is being subjected to continuous attack, wave after wave," said Rear Adm. Mike McConnell, director for intelligence of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Thirty Iraqis were killed in the Khafji fighting, along with at least 15 Saudis, the Saudi command said.
The U.S. command said allied forces had destroyed 33 Iraqi tanks and 28 armored personnel carriers in the Wafra area west of Khafji, where Iraqi troops on Tuesday and Wednesday staged what a U.S. spokesman called "probing attacks."
Eleven Marines were killed in the fighting when their light armored vehicles were destroyed. A team of four Marines, including a munitions expert, is investigating whether some or all may have been killed by weapons fired by U.S. or allied forces.
Lt. Col. Jerry Humble, operations officer for the 1st Marine Division, said one of the vehicles may have been hit by a missile fired from a U.S. aircraft. U.S. and Iraqi forces came within 25 yards of each other during the night battle, he added.
"Historically, there's always casualties from friendly fire in close battles because it's a fight for your life," Colonel Humble said.
"There's a very good possibility that we'll never know the answer" to whether the Marines were killed by friendly fire, Pentagon spokesman
Pete Williams said.
With the war in its 17th day, coalition aircraft flew more than 2,500 combat and support missions, despite cloudy skies over portions of Iraq. No Iraqi aircraft were spotted in the air yesterday. General Kelly declared the Iraqi air force "moribund."
The destruction of Iraq's air defenses apparently has emboldened U.S. planners to launch ground-hugging Tomahawk cruise missiles in daylight. Six flew against targets yesterday in Baghdad, with two clearly visible in videotaped reports by Western journalists there.
A CNN report showed an unsuccessful Iraqi attempt to intercept a Tomahawk in flight; Pentagon officials denied a British news report that one or two of the incoming missiles had been shot down.
The U.S. command confirmed the downing Thursday over Iraq of an AC-130H gunship -- a propeller transport plane capable of flying low. All 14 aboard were listed as missing.
Meanshile, Iraqi sailors whose vessels were sunk by allied fire told a Kuwaiti interrogator that they had been on their way to Iran, ordered there by their commanders in order to save their boats until after the war, combat correspondents reported.