The biggest tank battle since the North African desert campaigns opposing Rommel in World War II may loom: an allied force pitting American M-1 Abrams tanks against Iraq's Soviet-made T-72.

Allied commanders are awaiting orders for a ground offensive aimed at driving Iraq's 540,000 troops from Kuwait, and tank warfare will be a major factor in its success.U.S. military experts say the M-1, with its vaunted technology and maneuverability backed by superior air power, has the advantage. But no one is discounting the ability of powerful and battle-tested Iraqi tanks to inflict heavy damage and casualties.

A major allied-Iraqi tank battle would rival the 1943 clash of 3,000 Soviet and German tanks in Kursk, Soviet Union; or the North African campaigns of World War II when the Allies faced the Afrika Korps of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

The Iraqis are believed to have about 4,000 tanks in the Kuwaiti theater, against about 2,200 U.S. tanks and 1,200 tanks under allied command.

Iraq's numerical advantage is offset by its dependence on less lethal T-55 and T-62 tanks, Soviet models dating back 30 years and more. It is believed to have only about 500 T-72s, the pride of its arsenal, on the front lines.

The T-72 is "the best export model the Soviets have," said Maj. Peter Keating of the Army Public Affairs Office. "It's a good tank, a formidable piece of equipment."

The modified T-72M1 has a powerful 125mm main gun and three-layered armor more than 200mm thick. Iraq used what it calls the "Babylon lion" extensively in the Iran-Iraq war, and its most experienced fighters, the Republican Guard, are believed to be equipped with the machine.

Military experts warn that the threat of the older T-55 should not be ignored. The Iraqis have reinforced the armor on the original Soviet model and, while most carry 100mm guns, some reportedly have been fitted with the big guns used by the T-72.

On the other side of the battle line will be the American M-1, a $3 million vehicle the Army says is the best in the world. The M1-A1, the newest version, has a depleted uranium, ceramic and steel armor with a density 1.5 times that of ordinary steel. It is said to be nearly impervious against anti-tank warheads.