CAMP DOHA, Kuwait — U.S. commanders, beginning the ground war earlier than expected, sought to reclaim an element of surprise Thursday after the war's unexpected start.
The swift land assault Thursday by lead elements of Marines, Army and British forces was in striking contrast to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when allied forces began their offensive after a 39-day air campaign.
It was also different in another important way: the degree of risk. When the U.S. military began ground attacks in 1991, it had a much larger force and a more limited objective: evicting the Iraqi forces from Kuwait. This time the force is smaller and Saddam Hussein has his back against the wall.
Allied military commanders said they were well aware that it is difficult to deter the potentially brutal ripostes of a regime they have publicly vowed to destroy.
Two main factors appear to have led the military speed up their extraordinary complex and carefully calibrated plan.
First, the military received reports there were several fires in the vicinity of the Rumallah oil fields. One of the fires appeared to be a trench full of oil that the Iraqi military ignited to try to obscure the battlefield and protect its forces from air strikes. Six of the more than 1,000 oil wells in southern Iraq were burning in fires that appeared to be deliberately set.
When the attack began, U.S. military officials said it was not clear if the fires were part of a broader plan by the Iraq to torch the oil fields, but they were not able to take any chances.
The Marines had been instructed earlier in the week to be ready to attack on four-hour notice in case the Iraqis set the oil field afire as in 1991 when they burned the Kuwaiti oil fields.
The early attack also seemed intended to help the allied forces regain the initiative and maintain some element of surprise. While the cruise missile attacks on areas around the presidential compound in Baghdad on Thursday night were predictable, the timing of the land attack was not.
The air and land assault that began Thursday night was actually scheduled to occur later this week after several days of preparatory air strikes, probes and psychological operations.
But the attacks were moved up after a cruise missile strike Wednesday night, ordered by President Bush, which apparently failed to kill Saddam Hussein, but still apparently disrupted Iraqi command communications. A formation of more than 150,000 troops quickly moved to ready themselves and their weapons to invade Iraq.
The Marines rushed to complete cutting slits in the sand berms and filling in the ditches that separate Iraq and Kuwait. The Army worked out the final details of its plan to fire its ATACMS missile, a surface-to-surface missile that is being used in combat for the first time with a potent 500-pound warhead. The logistics required to support, sustain and project the force was quickly recalibrated to support early execution of the invasion plan.
Earlier Thursday, it was the Iraqis who seemed to have the initiative.
They responded to the cruise missile attacks on Baghdad on Wednesday night by firing missiles at the allied troops across the across the border in Kuwait. A Seersucker cruise missile exploded within 600 yards of Camp Commando, the headquarters of Lt. Gen. James Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Kuwait. The Iraqis fired the Seersucker, a Chinese-made missile designed as an anti-ship missile, from Umm Qasr. Shock waves from the explosion knocked down some troops at the camp.
Then two more surface-to-surface missiles, probably Ababil-100s, were fired.
"This is not a drill," blared "Giant Voice," the loudspeaker system at Camp Doha, Lt. Gen. David McKiernan's headquarters. The staff put on their chemical protective suits and gas marks and kept working.
One of the missiles was intercepted by a Patriot anti-missile five miles from the camp. The whoosh of the Patriot reverberated throughout the camp. The second missile was intercepted by a Patriot further away in the desert.
By evening the allies' focus was on wresting the initiative back from the Iraqis and moving ahead with the attack plan.