As diplomatic efforts to avert a U.S.-led war against Iraq reach their final stages today, U.S. troops near Kuwait's northern border with Iraq are mobilizing for battle. Ron Synovitz is RFE/RL's correspondent at a tactical assembly area for U.S. troops near the Iraqi border. He reports on the preparations for war -- and the feelings among the soldiers.
Assembly Area Hammer, Northern Kuwait; 17 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- There are increasing signs of mobilization for war at U.S. military camps in northern Kuwait, just south of the Iraqi border.
The frequency of U.S. war planes flying over the border into Iraq's southern no-fly zone has risen significantly since the weekend -- with the sound of low-flying jets becoming routine. Crews have removed uranium-depleted ammunition from containers and are loading it into Abrams tanks. Ammunition tipped with depleted uranium is able to more effectively pierce the armor on enemy tanks.
U.S. troops have broken the seals on the bags containing suits designed to protect them from chemical and biological attack.
Mechanics are fine-tuning Bradley armored personnel carriers and pouring fluids into the engines of other vehicles to protect them from overheating on the long drive to Baghdad. And soldiers on the firing ranges of northern Kuwait are making final adjustments to their weapons to ensure their accuracy.
In Assembly Area Hammer, a forward camp for the Third Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division, troops gathered on a sandy parade ground at dawn today for a speech by the commander of Task Force 1-15, Colonel John W. Charlton.
As armored vehicles kicked up dust in the distance and Apache attack helicopters flew overhead, the troops marched in formation singing, "Remember World War II when all the fathers died and all the mothers cried. It's all right. It's all right."
With his men assembled, Charlton told the troops that their nine months of training and waiting in the desert is about to come to an end. "This is the hardest part right here," he said. "The waiting: Waiting to see what's going to happen, when it's going to happen, and what it's going to look like. I can't give you a specific date and time on when we're going to move, but it's coming very close," Charlton said.
The colonel told the soldiers that he had received confirmation from the highest level of the U.S. military leadership that they will be at the front of any U.S. invasion into Iraq. The news was received by the troops with shouts of enthusiasm.
"You may see enemy units that will fight tremendously hard," he said. "You may see some small pockets of resistance that will fight hard. So don't underestimate them. When you go in, you take the fight to the enemy. And you crush them. You crush them! And remember that he is trying to kill you. So don't go in there half-stepping. You go in there with both barrels and you let them have it. And you let them know that they are taking on the U.S. Army. And you crush them."
But Charlton also told his men that there still has not yet been a definitive order from U.S. President George W. Bush for them to go to war. "What you've got to understand is that we've got to wait until the situation is right for our civilian leaders, the president, to make a decision. And right now, he's doing everything he can to try to avoid having to go with Iraq. But make no mistake. If necessary, he'll give the word and we'll go into combat," he said.
Bush has given the UN Security Council a deadline of today to resolve the Iraqi crisis through diplomacy. The White House says Bush is preparing an address to the American people about Iraq, which could be delivered as early as tonight.
Yesterday, the Reverend Raymond Folsom prayed with the soldiers of Task Force 1-15, who said they expect the simple desert ceremony would be their last before going into battle. With a makeshift altar set up on the open hatch of a four-wheel Humvee patrol vehicle, and with M-16 rifles slung over the shoulders of the entire congregation, Folsom offered prayers for their safety, and for the safety of the Iraqi people.
"Lord, I pray for our safety, and most of all, Lord, that because we do have the faith, that we would be the foundation of this task force. That you would give us the strength from within to help [the other soldiers in the U.S. Army] to get up and to keep fighting. And Lord, I pray for our enemies. I pray for Iraq. Lord, you put the rulers in place and you also take them down. And Lord, I just pray that you would work in Iraq in such a way that not a shot ever needs to be fired. And Lord, that they [in Iraqi] would have the freedom that we enjoy," Folsom said.
Specialist William Hughes says the biggest fear among most of the rank-and-file U.S. troops is Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. "The [possibilities of] chemical attacks take precedent. That's the biggest fear. It's a very scary thing. You know, nobody wants to see themselves [attacked] or their buddy lying next to them twitching," Hughes said.
U.S. troops will go into any battle wearing gas masks and cumbersome, charcoal-lined suits to protect them from a chemical or biological attack. The suits are unbearably hot and will certainly make any advance on Baghdad more difficult.
But Hughes and other soldiers at Assembly Area Hammer repeatedly say their training in Kuwait last summer has prepared for them to fight in temperatures that routinely top 50 degrees Celsius.
After spending nine months out of the past year in such an environment, Hughes says his main feeling amid preparations for war is one of homesickness. Many other U.S. soldiers say that if there is going to be a war, they are eager for it to start. They say the quickest route home appears to be the road through Baghdad.
Aware of this sentiment, Colonel Charlton today concluded his pep talk by promising his troops that after they finish their fight in Iraq, they will be among the first soldiers allowed to go home.
That remark brought the loudest cheers from the troops.