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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Q & A With RFE/RL's 'Embedded' Correspondent In Kuwait

NCA will issue regular question and answer sessions with correspondents Ron Synovitz and Charles Recknagel, who are in Kuwait to cover a possible war against Iraq. Recknagel is currently in Kuwait City, while Synovitz is among the more than 400 journalists currently embedded with U.S. troops. Today, Synovitz gives an overview of the activities of the Third Infantry Division, currently camped in northern Kuwait near the Iraqi border.

QUESTION: Describe the situation for us. What kinds of activities are currently under way at the encampment, and what kind of duties is the Third Infantry Division likely to perform if and when the war begins? How would you describe the preparedness of the troops?

Synovitz: I am now standing in Assembly Area Hammer, which is a forward encampment in the barren desert of northern Kuwait, close to the Iraqi border. I am surrounded by Abrams tanks and Bradley armored personnel carrier fighting vehicles and the tents of the soldiers who are based out here in the desert.

This is a temporary camp, a temporary base, and it is being used by the U.S. Army as a kind of forward deployment ahead of any possible order from U.S. President George W. Bush for an attack on Iraq. There is a constant sound of armored units driving around us, Apache helicopters flying overhead. That's an Apache helicopter flying overhead just now from a nearby air base. There are so many troops out here in the desert that the test-firing ranges are completely occupied by the new arrivals, who are coming in from bases in the United States.

The soldiers who are in the Third Infantry Division that are with the Third Brigade Combat Team have been training out here in the desert of Kuwait for nine months out of the last year. They have been living out here so long that they were at the more permanent tent-city camps like Camp New York and Camp Pennsylvania, and they have been moved out of those camps in order to make room for some of the new arrivals coming in.

Definitely, in this assembly area, these are the troops who will be part of the first wave of the shock wave of an assault into Iraq, if the order is given.

QUESTION: After nine months of training, the troops must be fairly acclimated to the desert. What particular challenges are there to serving in a place like Kuwait?

Synovitz: On Wednesday (12 March) night, it was our second night here for the journalists arriving in the camp, and a massive windstorm had come up out of nowhere. We were all eating a special hot dinner -- A-rations. It was a steak dinner with corn on the cob, and the soldiers were very pleased about that, because it was the first time they had had such a nice meal in more than a month. And suddenly a massive windstorm swept up and put clouds of dust in all of our food.

Everybody went running for their tents on the order of the colonel, and then we all spent the night hunkering down in our tents. Even though we had a double-walled tent, we couldn't stop clouds of sand, very fine particles, from coming in, and we were advised by other soldiers who have been here for a long time to sleep with goggles and put scarves over our face and zip ourselves inside our sleeping bags so that we wouldn't wake up in the morning completely caked with the dust and dirt in our eyes and all of our skin.

QUESTION: What's on the minds of the troops?

Synovitz: When the journalists who are embedding with the Third Infantry Division first arrived here at Assembly Area Hammer, the first question that we were besieged with by the soldiers was, "Is [singer-actress] Jennifer Lopez really dead?" Apparently, there has been a rumor going around in the camp that Jennifer Lopez had been killed in a car crash and rumors fly fast and furiously here in these desert camps in Kuwait, where there is little or no access to any news, newspapers, radio, television, or even the Internet.

The mobile telephones that a lot of the soldiers had personally on them have all been collected on the order of the commanders here in order to maintain military secrecy as the likelihood of a possible war appears to be increasing. So, this was one of the first questions that we were all besieged with when we first arrived. By calling our editors, we were able to reassure the soldiers that Jennifer Lopez had not been killed in a car crash, but some of them say that they will not believe it until Jennifer Lopez comes here, in person, and makes an appearance to reassure them that she is not dead.

To be fair, the other question that is on the minds of many of the soldiers here at this American assembly area is exactly what is happening at the UN Security Council. They don't have much information here about the politics that are going on in New York at the UN headquarters about resolutions that would authorize military action against Iraq for its noncompliance with its obligation to disarm.