RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- After U.S.-led forces battled yesterday toward Kuwait City, dueled against Iraqi tanks and helicoptered troops deep into Iraqi territory, Baghdad Radio announced that President Saddam Hussein was ordering Iraqi forces to withdraw from the emirate.
The radio's announcement, made today at 1:35 a.m. (5:35 p.m. Monday EST), brought no change in action by allied forces, and came only hours after Iraq's launch of a Scud missile that killed 27 U.S. soldiers near Dhahran.
Senior U.S. military officer reported finding "no real evidence" of an Iraqi withdrawal more than six hours after the radio announcement, and "no significant movement, north or south," a finding confirmed in Washington by White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.
"We have no evidence to suggest the Iraqi army is withdrawing," Mr. Fitzwater said. "In fact, Iraqi units are continuing to fight." U.S. troops would not fire on unarmed soldiers in retreat, he said, but Iraqi combat units with their equipment "are still subject to the rules of war."
Iraq's declaration reflected severe Iraqi battlefield losses as reported by the U.S. military command, two days after the start of an all-out ground campaign whose latest phase included intensive allied airstrikes today against Iraqi tanks.
Allied officers declared they were defeating Iraqi troops and armor in clashes fought throughout Kuwait and southern Iraq, leading to the capture of more than 20,000 Iraqis and the destruction of at least 270 tanks. Officers described allied combat casualties as "extremely light," but warned the numbers could rise.
Iraq's deadliest strike against the allies was the Scud missile that apparently broke up while in flight but demolished a military dormitory at about 8:40 p.m. (12:40 p.m. EST) in the Saudi city of Al Khobar, a suburb of Dhahran. In addition to the 27 soldiers killed, the U.S. military command said 98 other U.S. soldiers were injured, all members of a military support units.
Casualties there far exceeded the total reported from two days of the all-out ground campaign. Four Americans and five soldiers from allied forces have been killed in ground action, according to the U.S. military command. The wounded included 21 Americans and 20 from allied units.
Senior officers meanwhile accused Iraq of committing "atrocities" against Kuwaiti civilians, including the rape and mutilation of women. Iraq also was condemned for continuing to blow up buildings in Kuwait and for setting fire to hundreds of oil wells.
As described by senior officers, coalition forces were reaching their objectives and staying ahead of schedule in what has become one of the most complex air-sea-and-land battles ever fought.
Separate columns of coalition infantry and tanks were said to be forcing their way north along at least a half-dozen routes to isolate Kuwait City and the Iraqi soldiers inside. Other columns were moving at high speed to squeeze the main force of the Republican Guards -- Iraq's best-equipped units -- between vast allied armies beginning to approach from two sides.
"We are continuing to attack and continuing to achieve tremendous success," Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal, deputy chief of operations, said at a briefing. "We're meeting the enemy and we're not having any trouble to date in destroying him."
With allied forces already having opened several fronts, the pace of operations would accelerate, General Neal said. "To date we have deployed only a small portion of our total combat power," he said. "There is much more to come."
A Pentagon official said U.S. forces already had confronted, but not to any great degree, troops of the elite Republican Guard, which forms the backbone of Mr. Hussein's military protection against domestic unrest.
Iraq's reponse allegedly included a sudden increase in the torture and execution of Kuwaiti civilians. U.S. and Saudi commanders accused Iraq of committing "atrocities of the worst kind."
Prince Khalid bin Sultan, commander of Saudi and allied Arab forces, announced that Iraqi officers would be held responsible for such actions, brought before an international court and "treated as criminals of war."
In and around Kuwait, the size and intensity of clashes increased. Allied forces fought tank battles, forcing entire battalions of Iraqis into surrendering, and moved past Iraqi units that were left relatively intact but isolated behind allied lines.
As described by well-informed officers, the coalition's priority remained the speed of its advance rather than a meticulous elimination of every pocket of resistance. Dispatches from the field described burning Iraqi vehicles and crowds of prisoners of war as the main obstacles for some units.
Prince Khalid, a lieutenant general, indicated that fighting was taking place in the outskirts of Kuwait City but that the Kuwaiti capital continued to be held by Iraqis. "We will be there soon," he said, "very soon."
Iraq claimed different results. A communique issued earlier described events as "in favor of our armed forces," reporting that Iraqi forces "repulsed and contained the enemy attacks and foiled their objectives."
According to the communique, hundreds of coalition tanks and other vehicles were destroyed. U.S., French, British, Egyptian and Saudi troops were said to have pushed back with heavy casualties.
But U.S. commanders sounded increasingly optimistic. Lt. Gen. Walter Boomer, commander of all U.S. Marine forces, told reporters he expected the ground campaign to be over "in a matter of days, not weeks."
The most audacious move appeared to be the rapid northward advance by the Army's 101st Airborne Division from the Saudi border in the direction of the Euphrates River. Led by an armada of attack helicopters, the division was heading north of the Republican Guards encamped on the Iraq-Kuwait border.
If the Airborne unit succeeds in sweeping north of the Repubican Guards, it could cut the Guards' supply lines from within Iraq and block the arrival of reinforcements. The Republican Guards also would be caught between coalition forces advancing from the south and the Airborne unit in the north.
The position of the airborne forces, between the Republican Guards and Baghdad, also raises a dilemma of how to maneuver, or respond, should the elite Iraqi troops begin to go north.
Few details about operations were available from the U.S. Central Command or from the Pentagon, which maintained a partial news blackout.
As commanders predicted, the opening stages of the ground campaign brought an increase in the number of allied air strikes. Aircraft flew more than 3,000 missions -- the highest number in a 24-hour period since the beginning of the war, Jan. 17 -- including over 700 as close-in support for ground forces.
Four aircraft were lost: two Harrier jets, one Apache OH-58 helicopter and one Marine OV-10 observation plane. Three of the five pilots have been rescued, a spokesman said, but the two-member crew of the Marine OV-10 was missing in action inside Kuwait.
In the Persian Gulf, U.S. warships continued shelling the Kuwaiti coast as part of the preparation for a possible amphibious landing by more than 18,000 Marines aboard landing vessels. Dozens of landing craft remained near the coast, but as of nightfall it remained unclear whether any Marines had gone ashore.
A British destroyer, the HMS Gloucester, shot down a Silkworm anti-ship missile launched toward a flotilla of allied vessels, including the U.S. Navy battleship Missouri.
One of the two Sea Dart missiles fired by the Gloucester hit the Silkworm when it was four miles from the Gloucester, while the second Sea Dart flew through the debris, a British spokesman said. A second Silkworm was believed to have crashed shortly after being launched.
Allied commanders said some Iraqi ground units were surrendering en masse. "They are, to use an old-fashioned phrase, cannon fodder," said Brig. Ian Durie, artillery commander of Great Britain's 1st Armored Division. Officers expect tougher opposition from the Republican Guards.