NORTHEASTERN SAUDI ARABIA, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 31, 1991 (UPI) - Iraqi armored forces that crossed into an abandoned Saudi Arabian coastal town took heavy loses in a battle with allied troops who eventually drove the Iraqis back, military officials said Thursday.
Eleven U.S. Marines died and two were wounded in another battle. They were the first Americans to die in gulf war ground combat, and two U.S. soldiers in a transportation unit, a man and a woman, were reported missing.
Brig. Gen. Pat Stevens IV, the Central Command's logistics chief, said the Iraqis lost at least 22 tanks in the skirmishing along the border and the Marines lost three light armored vehicles.
In other developments in the gulf war, Stevens said the Navy sunk four more Iraqi craft and damaged 12 others, bringing to 60 the number of Iraqi vessels that have been sunk. The Republican Guards on the Iraq- Kuwait border were hit with another 350 bombing strikes, including 10 from the ground-pounding B-52s.
Stevens described the probing attacks as a ''reconnaissance in force, '' not any major action by Iraq.
And, he said, the action around Khafji had produced another 160 enemy prisoners of war. Some 131 have been taken in earlier actions.
The Iraqis began streaming over the border Tuesday night and many of them were driven back by Wednesday. But Saddam Hussein's forces clung to parts of the town, Al Khafji, until allied forces retook it Thursday, the Saudi government said.
The fiercest fighting appeared to be along a windswept stretch of desert near a 6-foot-high sand berm just south of the Kuwaiti border. The fighting, between Iraqi forces and the 1st Marine Division, continued into Wednesday.
The encounter erupted several hours after allied forces spotted about 50 Iraqi tanks moving toward the area. It was unclear how many Iraqi tanks crossed the border.
Artillery fire shook the town and the surrounding area as Saudi troops supported by U.S. aircraft and heavy guns pounded invading forces.
Khafji, abandoned since the start of the war, is located a few miles below the border on the main north-south road that parallels the coast leading to Saudi oil facilities and major population centers.
U.S. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the allied commander, said at a Riyadh briefing the Iraqi troops may have crossed the border in order to strike Marine artillery batteries that had pounded them for three straight nights.
Iraq claimed victory, but Schwarzkopf dismissed it, saying, ''You know, moving into an unoccupied village 6 miles inside the friendly lines when there's nobody there, I don't consider that a major military victory. However, if they want to consider it one, that's fine. That's just one battle; it's not the war.''
While he said pilots were giving higher figures, there were 24 confirmed kills on Iraqi tanks and 13 other vehicles. He said there were 13 Iraqis taken prisoner. The Marines lost two light armored vehicles. There was no figure on the number of Iraqis killed or wounded but officials said they sustained heavy casualties.
The first two attacks were west of the city in the vicinity of al Wafra, and in each case they were engaged by ground and air forces. The Iraqis suffered equipment losses and casualties and withdrew. The first attack was by an Iraqi mechanized battalion and the second, on Wednesday, was by a column of tanks.
Marine and Iraqi armored vehicles traded fire across the Kuwaiti border that Lt. Col. Cliff Myers described as ''hellacious.'' U.S. forces stayed within Saudi Arabia and many of the Iraqi armor losses were attributed to hits from TOW missiles.
Marine Maj. Craig Huddleston said the most recent fighting began shortly before noon Wednesday when about 80 Iraqi military vehicles confronted Saudi troops just north of Khafji.
Huddleston said Iraqi tanks approached the Saudi forces with their turrets reversed signalling a peaceful intent. Then they reversed the turrets and attacked. ''They have engaged the Saudi forces in combat so they (the Saudis) are going to kill them,'' Huddleston said. Iraqi forces numbered between 2,000 and 4,000.
As late as 1 p.m. (5 a.m. EST), Marine artillery units supported the Saudi and Qatari fighters around Khafji with shelling from positions to the rear.
Rowe described the Iraqi move into the frontier town as ''a fairly absurd thing for them to do'' because allied forces are positioned north and south of the city. ''They can't get out,'' he said. ''They're trapped there.''