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Kuwait: 'Iron Fist' Commander Says U.S. Troops Well-Trained, Sensitive To Invasion Issues

The commanding general of the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division has briefed journalists who will link up with his troops in Kuwait later this week to report on a possible war against Iraq. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is among those who will follow any advance into Iraq by the division, known as the "Iron Fist." RFE/RL explores the division's preparations for battle and the expectations of its commander.

Kuwait City, 10 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Major General Buford Blount III says thousands of U.S. soldiers under his command in the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division are now deployed at staging areas in the desert of Kuwait and are ready to attack Iraq if U.S. President George W. Bush issues an order to do so. "The force posture now is [that] the Third Infantry Division is here fully deployed, and the Army is deploying more troops. The [U.S.] Marines are deploying some more soldiers. The [U.S.] Air Force is continuing to flow soldiers in, and other coalition forces are in the process of deploying. So, we can go on offensive operations, if called upon to do that, now. We've drawn our equipment, and we're prepared to conduct most any type of operation that the Army or our country would ask us to do at this time," Blount said.

The Third Infantry Division is a mechanized infantry unit known by the nickname "Iron Fist" because of its heavy armor. Blount has hundreds of tanks and armored personnel carriers at his disposal, as well as thousands of support vehicles, such as Humvee troop carriers, multiple-fire rocket launchers, antimissile and antiaircraft defenses, fuel tankers, cargo trucks, and ambulances.

Other U.S. units now in Kuwait have less armor but can provide close air support from attack helicopters or ground fire and logistical support from light vehicles.

UNIKOM, the United Nations' observation mission along the Iraq-Kuwait border, says civilian contractors in Kuwait have used bulldozers in recent days to fill in trenches and punch gaps in the 217-kilometer-long electrified fence that U.S. troops would pass through to reach Iraqi territory. Those gaps reportedly are large enough to accommodate Abrams tanks.

During a briefing with the journalists who will travel into Iraq alongside the Third Infantry Division should an invasion be ordered, Blount said he is confident his troops will quickly gain the upper hand and "set the conditions for regime change" in Baghdad.

Blount said his confidence is partly based on overwhelming numerical superiority, including what he described as "more air force than I can use." But the commander said he also is counting on vast technological superiority over Iraq's regular army and Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard. "We've made great leaps in our technology since [Operation] Desert Storm [in 1991], not only in our capability to see ourselves and see the enemy but also our capability to get that information down to the commanders [in the battlefield]. I feel pretty confident in our ability to assess the enemy situation, plus our own. We have visibility of where all of our elements are," Blount said.

When asked by RFE/RL about the integration between the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force, Blount said he does not expect problems like those experienced in Afghanistan, where U.S. war planes relied on ground forces for target coordination. Miscommunications in Afghanistan led to several accidental U.S. air strikes against allied troops in the antiterrorism coalition. "We've learned some lessons in Afghanistan, and we've worked very closely with our Air Force. The Air Force has been embedded with our division, so we train together all the time. I think we have a very integrated team now. There were a few problems in Afghanistan. Both the Army and Air Force have worked very hard to resolve those. I don't think we'll have any issues," Blount said.

Blount explained that high-tech vehicle markings are being combined with thermal monitoring and other technologies to help different branches of the U.S. and British military identify each other during battle, even if visibility by the naked eye is reduced by dust storms or darkness. "We've done several things to help reduce the chance of fratricide -- of blue-on-blue fire. One is our situation awareness, where we have basically put satellite trackers on many of our systems so that [a] commander can look at a computer screen and see where all of his units are -- and all of his adjacent units [such as] the Marines and the British on the battlefield. And the Marines and the British forces [also] will have that capability to see where we are," Blount said.

The 54-year-old commander said Iraq's possible use of chemical or biological weapons is the biggest concern during battle but that U.S. troops have been well-trained to deal with such an eventuality. "The potential use of chemical weapons or biological weapons would be my biggest concern, but I'm not really concerned about it. I'm not staying awake worrying about it. We're very well-prepared for that. We've got good equipment. Soldiers are trained how to use it. Hopefully, it will not be used. But I think that's our soldiers' biggest concern. It's the potential use of chemical or biological weapons. They're prepared for that, but it's an unknown to them. So it does cause them some concern," Blount said.

Blount said an Iraqi chemical or biological attack would not cause U.S. troops to retreat or halt an advance toward Baghdad. He said the soldiers of the Third Infantry Division are prepared to fight through a chemical or biological attack, protect and decontaminate themselves, and continue with their mission.

Asked by RFE/RL what impact a successful Iraqi uprising against Hussein's regime would have on a U.S. advance on Iraq or on other U.S. military plans, Blount paused to give careful consideration to his answer. "The goal is to have a regime change, plus ensure that the country is free of weapons of mass destruction. So there may be a role for the [U.S.] military in that [disarmament process], even if there is [a revolt leading to] a regime change," Blount said.

U.S. troops training in the desert of Kuwait in recent weeks have been receiving crash courses on Arabic phrases needed to instruct Iraqi troops to lay down their weapons and surrender. But Blount said only a few of his soldiers are able to speak Arabic more fluently. He said most of these soldiers specialize in intelligence gathering or the interrogation of prisoners.

However, Blount said plans are in place that will help U.S. forces detain thousands of Iraqi prisoners of war without slowing down an advance on Baghdad. "We are prepared to handle large numbers of enemy prisoners of war. Our soldiers have gone through different training events. We have the trained personnel that would take charge of those prisoners and take care of them. And we have the food and water set aside and trained personnel to treat the enemy prisoners of war humanely, get them out of harm's way and into a controlled environment where we'll be able to take care of them," Blount said.

Despite such training, the major general admitted that rank-and-file U.S. soldiers probably will not be able to distinguish Sunni Muslims from Shi'ites or Kurds, particularly if they are all wearing the uniform of Iraq's regular army. "[My soldiers] know the difference between the regular army and the Republican Guard. And they know the political aspects of the Shi'ite and the regions they are in and the suppressions that Saddam has done to them. But the [Iraqi] soldier in uniform, you can't really tell what religion he is," Blount said.

Blount also said his troops have been instructed not to fire on mosques or schools unless they are first attacked by someone trying to use those buildings for protection, or if Hussein's military leaders place strategic weapons close to them. "Our soldiers have the right to defend themselves. If a soldier, or say an artillery piece, is placed next to a mosque and is shooting and putting our soldiers' lives in danger, then they have the right to respond with appropriate force. We hope that will not happen. We will never initiate that action. We have taken measures to identify where all the schools are, where all the mosques are, and put those into protected zones. And so, only if they initiate contact from there would we respond with appropriate force," Blount said.

Blount concluded that the soldiers of his Third Infantry Division are likely to take on the role of an initial stabilizing force in Iraq after Hussein is ousted from power, at least, he said, until they are replaced by other troops.