Desert Sabre

In a scene reminiscent of the Second World War or the Arab–Israeli Wars, an American column protected by Abrams tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) prepares for the offensive.

A pair of AMX-30 main battle tanks and a truck belonging to the French 6th Light Armoured Division pause outside Al-Salman. The tanks have a sand and olive-green camouflage scheme that does not extend to the road wheels.

This M60A1, serving with the US Marines Company D, 2nd Tank Battalion, formed part of Task Force Breach Alpha. The tank is fitted with reactive armour and an M-9 bulldozer kit.

General Schwarzkopf knew that speed was of the essence in the ground war. He had to conduct two envelopments, the first around Kuwait to prevent the Iraqi garrison escaping, and a second much larger one to prevent reinforcements reaching Kuwait. He also needed to secure Kuwait’s vital oilfields as quickly as possible – there were three major areas in the north-east and four to the south. Saddam’s generals planned to use oil as an environmental weapon that would enhance their defences and funnel their enemy’s tanks into predetermined killing zones. Once Schwarzkopf’s attack started, there was every chance that Saddam’s generals would open up the valves in Kuwait’s oilfields to form vast oil lakes and dynamite the oilheads to create seas of fire and choking smoke. This would greatly impede the Coalition’s tanks and jets; it would also hide any Iraqi troops massing for a counter-attack. Oil industry experts anticipated that up to 150 oil wells would be destroyed during the fighting.

Schwarzkopf and his commanders had every reason to be concerned about the fate of Kuwait’s oilfields. Saddam’s generals had in place a massive scorched earth plan that would set fire to over 600 oil wells in the face of Schwarzkopf’s offensive. This would result in the loss of six million barrels of oil a day and billowing smoke rising to over 10,000ft. The oil that was not burned off would create 300 oil lakes holding up to 50 million barrels of oil. The sand, gravel, oil and soot would result in almost 5 per cent of Kuwait covered in a layer of ‘tarcrete’, which would clog up the tracks of Schwarzkopf’s tanks. For good measure the Iraqis also sowed minefields around the oilfields so that firefighters would not be able to reach the blazing wells. This represented an appalling environmental disaster and would create a hellish battlefield straight from Dante’s Inferno.

Schwarzkopf fully understood that his tanks had to dash forward as fast as possible to try to prevent this, but ultimately it would prove to be an impossible task. Even before the ground war commenced in late January, Saddam’s men had sabotaged Kuwait’s main supertanker loading pier, dumping 460 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf. They also set fire to the oil wells and storage tanks at Wafra. By mid-February about fifty oil wells were damaged or on fire due to coalition air attacks on Iraqi forces stationed in the oilfields. Then on 16 February, perhaps anticipating the attack, the Iraqis began systematically wrecking hundreds of Kuwaiti oilfields, as well as sinking five oil tankers anchored off the Kuwait coast. It was clear that once the Iraqi Army was being driven from Kuwait, the destruction would only get worse.

Therefore Schwarzkopf’s ground offensive, dubbed Operation Desert Sabre, envisaged an enormous encircling operation that would encompass not only Kuwait but also a vast area of southern Iraq stretching up almost to the city of Basra. Although King Fahd was commander-in-chief SAAF, operational control of all Arab forces came under his nephew, His Royal Highness Lieutenant General Prince Khalid bin Sultan (the son of Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi Defence Minister). Egyptian and Syrian forces were also committed to the offensive, on the proviso they were not used inside Iraq.

Three commands were deployed on the eastern third of this enormous front. These consisted of the Joint Forces Command North, made up of the units from Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, led by Lieutenant General Prince Khalid bin Sultan, which held the portion of the line east of VII Corps. To the right of these forces was Lieutenant General Walter E. Boomer’s US 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which included the 1st (Tiger) Brigade of the Army’s US 2nd Armored Division, as well as the US 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions. On the extreme right Joint Forces Command East, anchoring the line on the Gulf, consisted of units from all six member states of the Gulf Co-operation Council. Like Joint Forces Command North, it was under General Khalid’s command.

The two US Marine divisions, with the US Army’s Tiger Brigade, and coalition forces under Saudi command were to push directly north into Kuwait. These forces would hold the enemy’s tactical and operational forces in place by breaching the Iraqi defences in Kuwait and encircling the Iraqi forces in the heel of Kuwait and Kuwait City. Once Kuwait City was encircled and Iraqi forces were driven out or defeated, the Arab forces would then liberate Kuwait City itself.

To the west the XVIII Airborne Corps was to attack deep into Iraq to control the east–west lines of communication along the strategic Highway 8 and cut off Iraqi forces in the Kuwait Theatre of Operations. Even further west, the French 6th Light Armoured Division and the US 101st Airborne Division were to conduct a massive western envelopment, with a ground assault to secure the coalition’s left flank and an air assault to establish forward support bases deep in Iraqi territory. The US 24th Infantry Division had the central role of blocking the Euphrates river valley to prevent the escape north of Iraqi forces in Kuwait, and then attacking east in coordination with VII Corps to defeat the armour-heavy divisions of the Republican Guard.

In the centre of the coalition line, along the Wadi al-Batin, Brigadier General John H. Tilelli’s US 1st Cavalry Division was to strike north into a concentration of Iraqi divisions, whose commanders remained convinced that the Coalition would use Batin and several other wadis as avenues of attack. In the meantime VII Corps would conduct the main coalition effort, attacking east of XVIII Airborne Corps and west of Wadi al-Batin, driving first north and then east to find and destroy the heart of Saddam’s ground forces, the armour-heavy Republican Guard divisions.

Desert Sabre was unleashed at 0400 hours on 24 February 1991. The Iraqi Army in the KTO knew that Saddam had abandoned them, and many soldiers had little desire to fight for him once the enemy armour came into their sights. The relentless air attacks had already taken a terrible toll on Iraqi morale. Washington assessed that at least 150,000 Iraqi troops had deserted before Desert Sabre even commenced. Two Iraqi divisional commanders subsequently informed their British captors that they had received no orders for almost two weeks.

As instructed, Joint Force Command East (comprising Saudi, Kuwaiti, Omani and UAE forces) pushed towards Kuwait up the coastal route to form the anvil for the American, British and French hammer-blow assault into Iraq, which was to trap the bulk of the Iraqi forces in the KTO. The Saudis came up against the Iraqi 5th Mechanized Division, still recovering from the Khafji encounter, while Commander Marine Central (MARCENT) breached Iraqi defences further inland.

To the far west, as planned, General Mouscardes’s French 6th Light Armoured Division, reinforced by the 2nd Brigade of the US 82nd Airborne Division, advanced to protect the far western flank. The 82nd was bolstered with forty-three M551A1 Sheridan light airborne assault vehicles in its air-droppable tank battalion. The French 4th Dragoon Regiment, normally part of the French 10th Armoured Division, was augmented by elements of the 503rd Combat Tank Regiment. French reconnaissance units consisted of the 1st Foreign Legion Cavalry Regiment and the 1st Spahis Regiment; both were capable of conducting such offensive operations as they had strong anti-tank capabilities. They consisted of three squadrons equipped with AMX-10RC 6×6 armoured cars, armed with the 105mm gun, plus the Véhicule de l’Avant Blindé (VAB) 4×4 armoured personnel carrier. Both were ideal for the mad dash across the Iraqi desert. None of the newer tracked AMX-10P infantry combat vehicles was deployed to the Gulf. Mouscardes’s men moved to successfully secure the Al-Salman air base. Pushing almost 65km into Iraq, they destroyed the Iraqi 45th Infantry Division, then formed a screen to protect the left flank of the XVIII Airborne Corps assault. Fortunately for the French they suffered few casualties, with only three fatalities in combat.

To their east some 2,000 men of General Peay’s US 101st Airborne Division were moved forward in a massive air-lift involving 400 helicopters. Some 110km inside Iraq they established a forward operating base named Cobra. A further 2,000 men arrived by vehicle, then the division moved to secure vital roads along the Euphrates and Tigris valleys to isolate the Iraqi forces in Kuwait. Meanwhile, XVIII Corps’ US 24th Infantry Division under General McCaffrey, supported by the US 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment, raced north to link up with the 101st, and on 25 February swung right to attack the northernmost Iraqi Republican Guard positions. The 3rd Cavalry was the only tank unit equipped with the M1A1 Abrams, and was the first US unit to take on the Iraqis in an engagement on 22 January 1991.

Saddam Hussein, probably realizing that defeat in Kuwait was inevitable, sought to protect his regime, but this hampered his generals. Key units were held back and he was reluctant to risk either the Republican Guard or his air force. In senior circles the Iraqi Army probably understood that it was not to make a last stand in the deserts of Kuwait and southern Iraq, but rather retreat to try to save Saddam’s regime. Saddam may have also underestimated the defensive abilities of the Iraqi Army as a result of the Iran–Iraq War. The Iranian Army had been ill-equipped and poorly trained and led, resulting in appalling casualties for little ground gained. Saddam initially hoped that his forces would inflict unacceptable casualties on the Coalition and score a propaganda coup as well as an early cessation of hostilities.

In the meantime US armoured columns raced to trap the Republican Guard and prevent them escaping northwest towards Baghdad with their armour. Initially the Iraqi commanders thought VII Corps was driving on Kuwait City, not against the Guard itself. The intention had been that the Iraqi 12th Armoured Division would act as the immediate tactical reserve, while the Guard forming the strategic reserve came to the rescue. When the Guard realized what was happening, they desperately attempted to stop VII Corps from breaking through to their rear. Three elite divisions, the Medina, Hammurabi and Tawakalna, deployed by the road running parallel to the Iraqi–Saudi pipeline.

The scene was set for the battle for Kuwait City and the battle of the Basra pocket.

The Basra Pocket

While the Coalition fought to free Kuwait City, up to 800 American tanks from the US VII Corps’ 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions and the 2nd Armoured Cavalry Regiment launched attacks on a Republican Guard division inside Iraq, which lost 200 tanks. They then moved forwards and engaged a second division. American Apache attack helicopters and A-10 Thunderbolt tank-busters also played a significant role. One Apache alone destroyed eight T-72s, and on 25 February two USAF A-10s destroyed twenty-three Iraqi tanks, including some T-72s, in three close air support missions.

In the envelopment the US M1A1 tanks easily outgunned the Iraqi T-72s, and in a night engagement on 25/26 February the Guards’ Tawakalna Armoured Division was largely destroyed without the loss of a single US tank. The Republican Guard, unable to stem the American armoured tide, tried to retreat, and the next morning a brigade of the Medina Division, supported by a battalion from the 14th Mechanized Division, attempted to protect the withdrawal. The Medina troops found themselves under attack from the US 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions, while the remnants of the Tawakalna were finished off by air attacks.

Caught as they were being loaded onto their tank transporters, the Medina Division’s armoured vehicles were bombed by USAF A-10s and F-16 fighters. Apache attack helicopters caught another eighty T-72 tanks still on their transporters along Route 8. Although not all the roads out of Basra were closed, the Coalition was determined that Iraqi tanks and artillery should not escape. The US VII Corps’ armour also fought the Hammurabi Republican Guard Division 80km to the west of Basra.

The US 24th Mechanized Division, having made a dramatic 150-mile drive northwards to join the US 101st Airborne Division on the Euphrates, now swung to the right to block the Iraqi escape route. The six remaining Republican Guard divisions had been trapped overnight in a swiftly diminishing area of northern Kuwait and southern Iraq, with their northward line of escape largely severed.

On 27 February the US 24th Mechanized Division attacked the Guard’s Hammurabi Armoured Division, the al-Faw and Adnan Infantry Divisions and the remnants of the Nebuchadnezzar Infantry Division. They fled, with the Nebuchadnezzar Division possibly escaping over the Hawr al-Hammar Lake causeway. The 24th Mechanized Division also captured fifty Republican Guard T-72 tanks as they were fleeing north along a main road near the Euphrates. It was all but over for the Guards.

Six disparate brigades with fewer than 30,000 troops and a few tanks were now struggling back to Basra. The Iraqis agreed to a cease-fire the following day, whilst the British 7th Armoured Brigade moved to cut the road to Basra just north of Kuwait City. However, some troops continued to escape across the Hawr al-Hammar and north from Basra along the Shatt al-Arab Waterway. Brigadier Cordingley, Commander of the 7th Armoured Brigade, noted, ‘By 28 February it was clear that General Schwarzkopf’s plan to annihilate the Republican Guard with a left hook through Iraq had failed … The majority of the Iraqi soldiers were already on their way back to Baghdad.’

Firmly in control of Iraq’s state media, Saddam had no need to acknowledge this terrible defeat, and instead victory was given as the reason for abiding by the ceasefire. Baghdad Radio announced, ‘The Mother of battles was a clear victory for Iraq … We are happy with the cessation of combat operations as this would preserve our sons’ blood and people’s safety after God made them triumphant with faith against their evil enemies.’

Only a residual Iraqi threat remained by 30 February. Two Iraqi tank brigades were south-west of Basra, another brigade with forty armoured vehicles was to the south and an infantry brigade was on either side of the Hawr al-Hammar Lake. In total, about eight armoured battalions, the remnants of those Iraqi forces deployed in and around Kuwait, were now trapped in the ‘Basra Pocket’. Basra itself lay in ruins, and marshes and wetlands to the west and east made passage impossible.

Despite the cease-fire, the US 24th Division fought elements of the Hammurabi Division again on 2 March after reports that a battalion of T-72 tanks was moving northwards towards it in an effort to escape. The Iraqi armoured column foolishly opened fire and suffered the consequences. The Americans retaliated with Apache attack helicopters and two task forces, destroying 187 armoured vehicles, 34 artillery pieces and 400 trucks. The survivors were forced back into the ‘Basra Pocket’. By this stage Iraq only had about 700 of its 4,500 tanks and 1,000 of its 2,800 APCs left in the KTO and, with organized resistance over, the Iraqis signed the cease-fire on 3 March 1991.

In the wake of Desert Sabre, only the Iraqi Army Air Corps and the Republican Guard Corps secured favour with Saddam Hussein, by swiftly crushing the revolt in the south against his regime and containing the resurgent Kurds in the north. In contrast the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Air Force had fled Desert Storm and remained under a cloud. Subsequently the IrAF found itself grounded by the Coalition’s ceasefire terms, while the army was left face to face with the barrels of the Republican Guard Corps’ remaining tanks. After a brief stand-off, the Iraqi Army opted for the status quo, but its loyalty and competence remained tarnished by its collapse and by the actions of thousands of deserters.

In 1991 the Coalition accounted for just six Iraqi helicopters (one Mi-8, one BO-105 and four unidentified) in the air and another five on the ground. General Schwarzkopf had cause to regret that they did not destroy more. During the ceasefire talks on 3 March 1991 the Iraqis requested that, in light of the damage done to their infrastructure, they be allowed to move government officials around by helicopter. Without fully realizing the consequences, Schwarzkopf agreed not to shoot down ‘any’ helicopters flying over Iraqi territory. Thus, by using his helicopter gunships Saddam was able to crush the rebellion in Iraq’s cities and the southern marshes and Kurdish advances in the north with impunity, despite his defeat in Kuwait.

In hindsight, Schwarzkopf felt that grounding Iraqi helicopters would have made little difference. In his view the Iraqi armour and artillery of the twenty-four remaining divisions, which had never entered the war zone, had a far more devastating impact on the rebels. This was a little disingenuous, for while tanks and artillery were instrumental in crushing the revolts in the predominantly Shia cities of Basra, Karbala and Najaf (the scene of Shi’ite unrest in 1977, resulting in 2,000 Shia arrests and another 200,000 being expelled to Iran), in the southern marshes the Republican Guard’s T-72 tanks could not operate off the causeways and artillery was only effective against pre-spotted targets. In fact the Iraqi Army Air Corps played a pivotal role over Iraq’s rebellious cities, the southern marches and the Kurdish mountains.

Over the cities helicopter gunships were used indiscriminately to machine gun and rocket the civilian population in order to break their morale. Although there was no evidence of the use of chemical weapons (Saddam did not want to provoke further coalition intervention so stayed his hand), on at least one occasion residential areas were reportedly sprayed with sulphuric acid. This was corroborated by French military units still in southern Iraq, who treated Iraqi refugees with severe acid burns.

Although the rebellion was mainly a spontaneous outburst by defeated and disaffected troops returning home, its religious Shia basis meant that it was ultimately doomed. America stood by, as a Shia victory would only serve radical Shia Iran, and as a result the rebels did not even receive airdrops of manportable anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles with which to fend off Saddam’s helicopters and tanks. The Iraqi military, dominated by the Sunni minority, went about their business unhindered.

After authority had been brutally reasserted in the cities, thousands fled into Iraq’s southern marshes seeking sanctuary. Here the IAAC was even more instrumental in the destruction of those forlorn forces that the West had vaguely hoped would unseat Saddam. IAAC pilots knew what lay in store for them if they failed, as General Ali Hassan al-Majid, who was commanding the operation, warned at least pilot not to return unless he had wiped out some insurgents obstructing a bridge.

The whole operation in the marshes was largely a repeat of March 1984, when Iraqi helicopter gunships mercilessly hunted Iranian troops round the two important Majnoon Island oil facilities. This time they refrained from using mustard gas or any other chemical agents, but once again the unburied dead were left to become carrion for the jackals, and those foolish enough to surrender were shot at point-blank range. The IAAC contributed to the deaths of an estimated 30,000 rebels. Additionally 3,000 Shia clerics were driven from Najaf and fled to the Iranian town of Qom.

In the north the fear of another Halabja was sufficient to scatter the Kurdish population at the first sight of an aircraft. The IrAF and IAAC once more refrained from deploying chemical weapons, but callously contented themselves with dropping flour on the refugees, who instantly panicked. Once more the Iraqi military made use of their helicopters and artillery to eject the lightly armed Kurdish guerrillas from their recent conquests.

Whilst the IAAC had continued to fly after 1991, in defiance of the cease-fire terms the IrAF resumed operational and training flights with its fixed-wing aircraft in April 1992. The IrAF claimed it was responding to the provocation of an Iranian Air Force attack on an Iranian opposition force’s base east of Baghdad. In response to these violations, and the repressive military operations, the UN imposed two separate no-fly zones in the north and south of the country.

Due to UN sanctions and financial restrictions, the Iraqi Air Force could only manage about a hundred sorties per day, down from 800 in the heyday of the Iran–Iraq War. Residual IrAF capabilities remained in the Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk areas, protecting Saddam from dissidents and the Kurds. Throughout most of the 1990s the IrAF spent much of its time dodging the northern and southern no-fly zones, though at least two fighters (a MiG-23 and a MiG-25) were lost for violating these zones.


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