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Kuwait: Desert Dispatch -- War Begins With U.S. And Iraqi Air Strikes

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is embedded with the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division in northern Kuwait. The division is expected to be among the first ground troops to enter Iraq. Today's questions deal with the beginning of the war, retaliatory Iraqi strikes into northern Kuwait, the fear of chemical warfare among the U.S. troops, and reports about the surrender of Iraqi soldiers at the Kuwaiti border.

QUESTION: The war officially began this morning with targeted U.S. air strikes aimed at eliminating Saddam Hussein and members of top Iraqi leadership. When did the Third Infantry Division hear about the strikes, and how did they react?

Synovitz: As far as the troops in the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division are concerned, they've been at a state of war from the very moment that the ultimatum given by U.S. President [George W.] Bush for Saddam Hussein and his sons to leave Baghdad has expired at 4 a.m. local time here in Kuwait. The troops of the Third Infantry Division were on the move at the time the ultimatum expired, moving to forward attack positions near the demilitarized zone, literally within sight of the Iraqi border.

News of the air strikes and Tomahawk cruise-missile strikes against command structures, apparently aimed at Saddam Hussein and his senior leadership near Baghdad, actually surprised the troops here on the ground. They had been expecting much more severe air strikes in the first wave than what we saw last night. At this point the troops are standing by, waiting tonight to see what will happen, if there will be an escalation in the air war.

It's been widely reported in the Western press that air strikes against Iraq could last 48 or 72 hours before any kind of a ground offensive is launched into Iraqi territory, but command officials here say that a ground war could start at any time in the future now that military action has started.

QUESTION: There have also been reported Iraqi Scud missile strikes aimed at U.S. troops in northern Kuwait, as well as an alert about possible biological or chemical attack. What can you tell us about that?

Synovitz: U.S. military intelligence reports say that one Iraqi incoming Scud missile has been intercepted by a U.S. Patriot missile-defense system in our area here, where the Third Infantry Division is located. The reactions of soldiers that I've talked to here on the ground has been: "Yeah, bring it on. We're ready to take out anything you shoot at us." Shortly after the interception of the Scud missile by this Patriot, I've seen an increase of troop vehicle movement, including U.S. Marine Corps in this area. Despite this interception of a Scud missile by a Patriot missile, there has been no immediate heightened security against possible gas or chemical or biological attack by Iraqi missiles. Under standard operating procedures, any time a missile lands within 1 kilometer of U.S. troops, all troops in the entire theater go onto the highest alert level. That means that they put on chemical-protection suits with their jackets, trousers, covers on their helmets, protective gloves, gas masks, and rubber boots.

QUESTION: You've mentioned that most of the troops in the Third Infantry Division have already been in Kuwait for nine months and are eager to see the beginning of the war because they look at it as the fastest possible way to get home. But beyond this, what is your feeling of how the troops feel about the actual significance of the war? What are their feelings about the conflict and about Saddam Hussein?

Synovitz: There is a lot of anger by the rank-and-file troops here at the Baghdad regime because they feel that the reason they've had to spend so much time out here in the desert is because of Saddam Hussein's refusal to comply with his disarmament obligations under United Nations Security Council resolutions. The troops here do believe that Saddam Hussein is hiding chemical weapons. That is their greatest fear, that they may be targeted by a chemical attack. And it's a fear because it's an unknown variable to them. Not only do they not know whether it will happen or not, but as one soldier told me, if there's an enemy Iraqi soldier coming at him with a weapon, he knows he can shoot him and kill him. But a chemical attack is something he simply can't see.

QUESTION: Finally, what more can you tell us about the reports of Iraqi soldiers surrendering at the border with Kuwait?

Synovitz: The latest intelligence reports that we have now are that 27 Iraqi soldiers have surrendered near the border with Kuwait in the area of the Third Infantry Division. Those surrenders appear to include border guards that are staffing a series of isolated police posts on the border. Those police posts usually have 8 to 10 officers from the Iraqi services in them each. So the indication here is that the Iraqi guards at least three border posts appear to have crossed over into the demilitarized zone and surrendered, either to Kuwaiti border guards or to U.S. troops.