Four American soldiers were killed in the desert of northern Kuwait this week when their Blackhawk helicopter crashed in a severe dust storm. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz was touring the area when the crash occurred. He describes the intensity of the storm and examines how similar weather could impact U.S. and British troops if they are ordered to fight a war against Iraq.
At the Kuwait-Iraq Border, 28 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- When the wind picks up speed on the flat expanses of Kuwait's northern desert, the sand and dust flying through the air become intolerable.
Those were the conditions early on 25 February as our government-sponsored press tour set off from Kuwait City toward the Iraqi border. Only the faint outline of the tall buildings in the capital could be seen as we left the city.
The meteorology department at Kuwait's international airport later reported that the entire country was enveloped by a cloud of dust -- with visibility reduced to about 250 meters.
As our caravan of vehicles headed into the northern half of the country -- off-limits to anyone except authorized personnel -- the wind blowing in from Iraq was gusting at up to 50 kilometers per hour.
And although the bus windows were sealed tightly, a dry and pasty sensation soon began to fill my nostrils and the back of my throat -- the taste and smell that some 100,000 U.S. and British troops in Kuwait know only too well after spending weeks in the desert preparing for a possible invasion of Iraq.
There was a collective sigh of disappointment among the television and camera crews aboard the bus. They had been granted rare permission to photograph and videotape whatever they wanted. But any hopes of glimpsing the massive U.S. and British troop deployments under way in the northern exclusion zone were obliterated by the choking air.
An Arab television cameraman shrugged his shoulders and told his Western colleagues matter-of-factly: "Inshallah. It is God's will."
Our guide raised the mood momentarily by joking that the sandstorm was part of a government plot to keep us from seeing sites of strategic importance. "This is normal, and as a matter of fact, it is for covert operations," he laughed.
But the light mood faded a few minutes later when journalists' mobile telephones began to ring with calls from their editors. Reports were emerging that a Blackhawk helicopter from the U.S. Army's Fifth Corps had crashed while on a training mission early that morning, killing all four crew members.
The crash was near Camp New Jersey, a tent city for U.S. soldiers in the desert about 50 kilometers northwest of the capital. It was precisely the area through which we were traveling at that moment -- the same area that Iraqi troops had passed through when they invaded Kuwait in August 1990 and again in February 1991 when they were forced out of the country by a U.S.-led international coalition.
I strained to see details in the distance. Through the pale shroud of sand, however, it was difficult to distinguish between a clump of desert shrubbery or the rusting hulk of an Iraqi tank destroyed in 1991 in Operation Desert Storm.
Later that day, when we reached the Umm-Kasser police post at the farthest eastern point of Kuwait's border with Iraq, I asked border guard First Lieutenant Osama al-Wehaib how the stinging sandstorms affected his ability to spot movement on the Iraqi side, across the UN-monitored demilitarized zone. "I have to work [in] it. As you see, the wind right now is not helping us. It's not helping us to see anything or to [do] anything [when you must] work with this weather," he replied.
Kuwaiti Army spokesman Colonel Youssef al-Mulla told reporters that the crash of the U.S. helicopter appeared to have been caused by the sandstorm and high winds. U.S. military officials in Kuwait have refused to confirm that report. Defense Department spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said U.S. Central Command is still investigating the crash.
Certainly, poor visibility in such a sandstorm makes flying more dangerous for helicopter crews. But U.S. troops say that while the dust complicates their work and makes life unpleasant, they are trained to fight under such conditions.
A key aspect of their months of training in Kuwait has been the endless task of keeping their high-tech military equipment clean and running smoothly -- including the heat detectors and infrared targeting systems that can penetrate clouds of dust to spot functioning Iraqi armor, artillery, or missile systems.
Colonel Rick Thomas, the chief public affairs officer for U.S. forces in Kuwait, told RFE/RL that the troops are ready. "We continue to do training, but make no doubt about it. We are prepared to do whatever the president [of the United States] asks us to do, whenever he asks us to do it. The president will make the decision on the time and the place, but we're certainly trained and ready," Thomas said.
Thomas said the resolve of U.S. soldiers is strong, despite the adverse conditions. "The soldiers, some of the Marines, the sailors, the airmen are out there. The place to go is out where they are training. Their motivation, their professionalism, their pure dedication is just astounding to watch. They simply want to do the absolute best they can do," he said.
Western military and political analysts agree that the weather in Kuwait and Iraq plays a huge role in Washington's military planning. The winter in Kuwait lasts from November through mid-March. Winter temperatures in the desert vary considerably, rising to around 20 degrees Celsius in the day and falling rapidly to about 3 or 4 degrees Celsius at night.
In the summer months of May through September, temperatures often exceed 50 degrees Celsius. Dust and sandstorms, which can often last for days, occur throughout the year but are more frequent toward the summer, when hot, dry air blows in from the interior deserts by the "As Somoum" wind.
Because of these conditions, the U.S. is widely believed to want to launch any offensive against Iraq as soon as possible, if diplomatic initiatives fail to convince Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to disarm voluntarily.
If they do go into battle, some U.S. soldiers could be wearing hot and cumbersome body suits to protect them from possible biological or chemical attacks. That would be a difficult and demoralizing task, indeed, at the height of the summer season.