Biggest Battle Of Iraq War Took Place After Cease-Fire

WASHINGTON - Two days after President Bush ordered a cease-fire for Operation Desert Storm, U.S. Army tanks, helicopters and artillery destroyed one of Iraq's surviving Republican Guard divisions in what U.S. military officials now say was the biggest clash of the Persian Gulf War's ground campaign.

The battle occurred March 2 after soldiers from the 7,000-man Iraqi force fired at a patrol of the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division.

In a four-hour assault just west of Basra, the 24th destroyed 247 Iraqi tanks and armored fighting vehicles and set ablaze 500 military transport vehicles, - including towed artillery and a dozen transports carrying FROG battlefield rockets - U.S. commanders said.

"We really waxed them," said one Desert Storm commander who requested anonymity.

More than 3,000 Iraqi troops were captured in the battle, which the military referred to at the time as one in a series of "small engagements."

Although the number of Iraqi troops killed is still unknown, Army film footage of the fight shows scores of President Saddam Hussein's soldiers apparently wounded or killed as Apache helicopters raked the Republican Guard Hammurabi Division with laser-guided Hellfire missiles.

"Say hello to Allah," one American was recorded as saying moments before a Hellfire missile obliterated one of 102 vehicles racked up by the Apaches.

"There was just destruction all over the place," said Lt. Col. Patrick Lamar, the 24th Division's operations chief, who coordinated the attack. Lamar said the Hammurabi was at two-thirds strength, or fielded at least two brigades, when it was hit on Highway 8. "We went right up their column like a turkey shoot," he said in an interview.

Although the Iraqi units fired back, U.S. losses were negligible. The 24th Division lost a single M-1A1 Abrams tank. One Bradley Fighting Vehicle was damaged and one soldier wounded.

According to U.S. commanders involved, the attack was approved by Desert Storm commander Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf after Maj. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the commander of the division, reported that a scouting patrol of his 64th Armored Regiment had come under fire from Iraqi forces. Two rocket-propelled grenades - a weapon fired by an infantryman - and a single round from a Soviet-made T-72 tank were fired at the patrol, according to division records. There were no casualties or damage from the Iraqi fire, Lamar said.

Word of the battle is filtering through military channels, where there is controversy over Bush's decision to end the war without destroying the Republican Guard.

But aides to Schwarzkopf in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and senior military officials at the Pentagon said the assault was not a political decision. "It was a tactical decision by Schwarzkopf," said a senior member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Under Bush's cease-fire orders, allied forces were to permit Iraqi units to pass unharmed through U.S. lines, but commanders were allowed to "respond aggressively" if attacked.

Army Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, defended McCaffrey's action. "They fired on us," Powell said. "It was their mistake."

Bush's cease-fire guidelines anticipated some continued Iraqi shooting because of poor communications between Baghdad and troops in the field. "Before we initiate (aggressive offensive action) - unless it's under duress - we are trying to use the loudspeakers in the language that they understand to tell them that a cease-fire has occurred," Marine Brig. Gen. Richard Neal, operations director of Desert Storm, said the day the cease-fire went into effect.

Although McCaffrey's division was equipped with loudspeakers mounted on helicopters, Lamar said "there wasn't time to use the helicopters."

Instead, after the 6:30 a.m. Iraqi attack, McCaffrey assembled attack helicopters, tanks, fighting vehicles and artillery for the assault, which began at 8:15 a.m. According to Lamar, the attack ended after noon, with the wreckage strewn over two miles of Route 8, the main Euphrates River valley road to Baghdad.

A senior Desert Storm commander said details about the attack were withheld at the time even though officials knew the extent of the damage. U.S. headquarters in Riyadh reported the clash as one in a series of "small engagements."

The Senate Armed Services Committee, now reviewing ground operations, will discuss the 24th Infantry Division action tomorrow.