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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- It's Been A Dusty, At Times Scary, Road To Baghdad

For nearly two weeks now, RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz has been traveling across Iraq with troops from the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division as they advance toward Baghdad. He is currently on the outskirts of the central Iraqi town of Hindiyah, near Karbala. As he reported earlier today, it's been a dusty, dirty, and -- at times -- scary ride. But he says morale among the troops is still high.

Hindiyah, Iraq; 31 March 2001 (RFE/RL) --

Question: What's the mood of the troops now that the war is into its second week, and there are reports that it could drag on?

Synovitz: The mood of the U.S. troops here remains high. I think that the U.S. soldiers here have expected that the war would last longer than a week, whereas the civilian population in the U.S. and elsewhere has been told that the war would be over quickly. The U.S. Army has been moving forward steadily over the last two weeks, and as long as the motion has been going forward or logistical supplies have been catching up, this has been keeping the mood of the soldiers high.

What would have a negative impact on the U.S. soldiers here is if they remained in positions around Baghdad for another two months. Then I think that you would really start to see some despondency setting in on the part of the U.S. troops. But for now, the morale remains high.

Question: Are the soldiers bothered by the prospect of a long wait -- or of the weather getting hotter?

Synovitz: What you have to understand is that a lot of the soldiers who are now in Iraq have been in Kuwait for nine months out of the last year, even before this war started, so it's getting to be an awful long time -- a year away from home for some of them.

Ironically, for all the talk we've heard about it becoming too hot to fight here, the nights have been very cold, chilly, dipping down to 38 degrees Fahrenheit [3.3 degrees Celsius] on some evenings. So one of the questions a lot of soldiers are asking is, "Why is it so cold when we were told it would be so hot?" So for now, the hot weather isn't that much of a factor.

The dust storms have a demoralizing effect on the soldiers when they're happening. But again, a lot of these soldiers have been here for many months in the desert, and they know how to live through desert dust storms, even to sleep through them.

Question: How do you sleep through a sandstorm?

Synovitz: I myself decided to sleep through a sandstorm two nights ago because the [other] option was to sleep in a very cramped vehicle. The answer to sleeping through a sandstorm is to put goggles on, to get inside a sleeping bag, to pull the top of the sleeping bag over your head, and keep your eyes closed and hunker down for the night. And that's about it. When you wake up in the morning, you're covered in dust.

Question: Aside from the sandstorms, what other discomforts are there for the troops?

Synovitz: One of the factors that makes life uncomfortable in the desert in Iraq for the U.S. soldiers is that they've been wearing the same nuclear-, biological-, and chemical-protection suits since they crossed over the border from Kuwait two weeks ago. These suits have charcoal lining in them, and that keeps the smell of soldiers who haven't bathed for weeks inside their suits. One of the soldiers told me in all seriousness that he finds that the biological-protection suits are [actually] very comfortable, and his words were that they "grow on you like a fungus."

Question: We've heard reports of troops running out of food, water, or fuel. Has this affected the troops you're traveling with?

Synovitz: There's been no shortage of food or water with any of the troops, the forward positions that I've been in contact with in the past two weeks.

I heard reports at the weekend that the advance was being halted for logistical reasons and that's been translated as if the soldiers were running out of food and water. But, in fact, what they were doing was preparing the vehicles, making sure that the crews of every vehicle have enough food and water for five days so that they can continue the next phase of their operation of advancing towards Baghdad without any logistical support, if that becomes necessary.

So far, there's been no cases that I've seen of anybody running out of food or water for the moment, or even anybody on any kind of rationing.

Question: What kind of contact has there been, if any, between troops and ordinary Iraqis?

Synovitz: The troops that I've been in contact with have little or no contact with Iraqi civilians, other than waving at them while their vehicles are passing by. Certainly your rank-and-file soldier is in no position to buy anything from an Iraqi civilian. The one exception to this is when one brave Iraqi may approach a U.S. military position asking for water or food. In that case, special units of civilian affairs officers trained to speak in Arabic will communicate with the Iraqis.

Question: What's been the scariest moment for you so far?

Synovitz: There was an incident the morning after the battle for Talil airfield in southern Iraq [last week] when a Nissan pickup truck with six [Iraqi] soldiers in the back rapidly approached our position with rocket-propelled grenade launchers. They fired two RPGs right over our heads and narrowly missed this 5,000-gallon [23,000-liters] fuel tanker, which would have been a disaster if they had hit it.

I've had three occasions where barrages of mortar shells have landed within 100 meters of where I am. One of those rounds hit an armored ambulance unit and injured a sergeant nearby. So those incidents are scary.

But I think the overwhelming concern at the moment, as with most soldiers, is the fear of a possible chemical attack by Iraqi soldiers. The reason for that is because it's such an unknown variable. As we're getting closer to Baghdad, many soldiers and myself, as well, are becoming concerned that Saddam Hussein's regime may launch a chemical attack [with weapons] that he allegedly possesses as a last-ditch effort.