DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA — DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- By the time the sun peeked through the rain clouds and the slate gray haze drifting from burning oil fields, six columns of tanks, armored vehicles and confident U.S. Marines had punched through the first line of deadly Iraqi defenses inside Kuwait.
Within another hour, the American juggernaut had pushed farther and faster into the country they are trying to wrest away from heavily armed Iraqi occupiers.
By 7:50 a.m. yesterday, the advancing leathernecks had gone 33 miles inside the border, undeterred by a deluge of rain and artillery shells.
"We're not going to do anything fancy," Brig. Gen. Russell Sutton told a tank commander before the 2nd Marine Division began the offensive at 5:30 a.m. "What we're doing is an off-tackle power play . . . where you apply all the power you can at one point to defeat your opponent."
The same plan that guided the unit through a western section of the Kuwaiti border helped the 1st Marine Division lead a similar thrust at the eastern end of the line.
According to official assessments and journalists traveling with the troops, one of history's largest military land campaigns, involving coordinated attacks by coalition forces over a wide battlefront, got under way with few, if any, significant deviations from the battle plan fashioned by senior U.S. commanders.
The military leaders implemented a well-honed plan that has stressed rapid maneuvers, flexible tactics and multi-pronged forward thrusts designed to take advantage of Iraq's reliance on fixed defenses.
The plan also prescribed repeated strikes on Iraqi artillery, along with attacks deep behind enemy lines and deceptive moves along the Kuwaiti coastline and elsewhere along a 300-mile front to tie up Iraqi troops or throw them off guard.
Col. Carl Fulford, commander of Task Force Ripper of the 1st Marine Division, told reporters that his unit moved selectively against Iraqi forces, choosing a path through one of the weakest sections of Iraq's defensive line.
The task force smashed through the line inside Kuwait 12 miles from the L-shaped heel of the Saudi-Kuwaiti border near Minagish. The unit's columns bypassed major concentrations of Iraqi foot soldiers, leaving them to be cut down or rounded up by allied units advancing from the rear.
"The Iraqis are very good when they are firing against pre-programmed targets," Colonel Fulford said. The Marines needed to avoid "being channeled into any killing zones or killing fields," he said.
Overall plans called for U.S. Army M1-A1 tank columns to sweep around the western flank of the Iraqi forces while British and U.S. armored forces pushed through gaps in the front-line infantry positions in Kuwait.
Britain's 1st Armored Division and U.S. troops were to move forward only after studying the initial success of the Marines.
Other U.S. and allied forces were known to have launched their assaults from positions in the Iraqi desert more than 200 miles west of Kuwait.
U.S. fighter-bombers pounded Iraqi artillery positions in western Iraq that had been firing on advancing allied forces.
"I can't fathom the size of this operation. I can't grasp it," Lt. Col. Randy Bigum said after flying his F-15C over western Iraq. "It's enormous."
From his vantage point high over the battlefield, Colonel Bigum said attacking U.S. armored vehicles were clustered across a vast western desert. "I had expected to see a continuous line, you know kind of like a kickoff return, but it wasn't like that at all," he said.
Senior commanders said last week that they had the option of sending the 101st Airborne "Screaming Eagles" and 82nd Airborne divisions far behind enemy lines to attack Iraqi troops holding Kuwait from the north.
According to scattered reports from the front lines, some paratroopers landed near Kuwait City.
Before the offensive began, U.S. and allied commanders had said they were counting on a huge Marine ground task force to lead a thrust toward Kuwait City as part of a "blitzkrieg" against Iraqi forces.
There were estimates that Marines could reach Kuwait City within an hour -- but only if there were no obstacles on the way.
Marine officers said they expected to pursue specific military objectives on the way to Kuwait City but were likely to stop outside the city to permit Kuwaiti and Saudi forces to make the final symbolic entry into the capital. Elements of the 2nd Division were reported to have reached the outskirts of the city, as had some Army troops.
Some Arab forces had sneaked into Kuwait on Saturday but did not begin moving forward until the Marines spearheaded the overall assault, said Lt. Gen. Walter Boomer, who heads Marine forces.
"The farther we move, the harder the fight will become," he said, predicting tough battles against Iraq's second-echelon forces.
Consistent with a battle plan briefed to reporters last week, Marines used tanks equipped with mine-clearing blades and plows, bulldozers and explosive charges to drive deep into Kuwait.
bTC They broke through one of the most extensive systems of fixed defenses since the Maginot Line. In many places, the defenses consist of double lines of obstacle belts, each with multiple layers of minefields, barbed wire, trenchworks and pre-targeted artillery "kill" zones.
The initial breaches for the invading forces were no wider than a pair of football goal posts.
According to plans, an amphibious assault was to occur, but it was not expected to begin until after the land attack was well under way. Although Marines rushed tank-fighting vehicles and other equipment ashore, the 18,000-man amphibious task force was "poised" for a possible landing on the Kuwaiti coast, a senior commander said.
For the land-based Marines, there was no way to plan for the luck that seemed to come their way.
A reconnaissance team was nearly discovered when a Marine stepped on what turned out to be the roof of an underground Iraqi bunker, but he managed to step back quickly when he heard Iraqi soldiers moving underneath, a Marine staff officer told reporters.
In addition, a major change in wind direction blew away the heavy oil clouds over one section of Iraqi defenses, exposing nearly 100 camouflaged Iraqi artillery pieces.
They were quickly destroyed after Marines called in an air strike.