DOHA, Qatar—U.S. forces throughout the Persian Gulf stepped up preparations for a possible war with Iraq on Wednesday as the commander of all forces in the region arrived here for what spokesmen said is a stay of "undetermined" length.
Gen. Tommy Franks' purpose at the As Sayliyah base near here officially was described as "previously scheduled meetings" with logistics, intelligence and communications officers.
The refusal of spokesmen to specify how long he would be at As Sayliyah, the operational headquarters, was an indication that fighting could be imminent. On a previous Franks visit, the military was quick to note that he would be leaving after a few days.
Elsewhere, there were other signs of approaching conflict:
_At Camp Maine in the Kuwaiti desert troops with the 3rd Brigade of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division were ordered into full battle gear for the first time since they arrived at the outpost a week ago. They were issued live ammunition Wednesday.
_At the Tactical Assembly Area/Champion Main, also in Kuwait, paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne completed the rigging and packing of Humvee attack vehicles and howitzers to be dropped out of airplanes, the last major task needed to prepare the troops to be flown or parachuted into advanced positions in Iraq. Airborne commanders say they are likely to be dispatched to seize airports or Iraqi oil fields.
_At Camp Matilda, another American outpost near Iraq, the commanding general of 20,000 Marines poised here to attack told reporters who will live with his troops that although his forces will wear chemical protection suits and carry gas masks if war breaks out, he believes chemical weapons will be ineffective against U.S. forces.
"Chemical warfare is going to kill more Iraqi soldiers" than Americans, Major Gen. James Mattis of the 1st Marine Division said.
Life in the desert continued to present problems for thousands of soldiers as they readied for orders to move north into Iraq.
Winds of 35 mph whipped up the third sandstorm this week at the Army's Camp Virginia, another outpost near the Iraqi border. Hundreds of soldiers eating a spaghetti dinner in one of three mess tents were ordered out because the tent, billowing in the wind, started to collapse—for the second time in a week. Many of the soldiers, caked with ashen silt and choking on sand, wandered in circles looking for their sleeping tents because of no visibility.
"Any comfort we get out here in the desert turns out to be a mirage," said Sgt. Nathan Muncy, who was caught outside in the sandstorm for an hour.
Mattis' remarks at Camp Matilda were to welcome about 100 journalists who have been bused to northern Kuwait in the past two days to join units of the 1st Marine Division. Mattis said he was still hopeful war could be avoided and stressed that he did not know when a war might begin. "I have no execute order," he said.
Mattis also said his forces are prepared to fight in the cities of Basra and Baghdad if war breaks out but that they will bypass other urban centers that have no military significance.
Mattis compared the possible invasion of Iraq to the 1st Marine Division's World War II assault on Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the Pacific. Although an attack on Iraq will be a similar spiritual and physical test of young Marines, it will not have Guadalcanal's huge casualties or the fierce resistance of the Japanese, he said. More than 3,000 Americans died in the six months of fighting at Guadalcanal in 1942.
Of the Iraqis, "We assume some of them will fight," Mattis said. "Some of them don't want a rematch," a reference to the 1991 Gulf War.
Mattis, who served in the first Gulf War, said the possible presence of civilians on the battlefield would make a second conflict in Iraq more challenging.
"This time we're moving up to Mesopotamia, to the Fertile Crescent," he said. "There are hundreds of thousands of innocent people out there. The whole concept of clear open desert is gone."
He has instructed Marines to protect civilians and surrendering Iraqi soldiers. "Look at it as if it were your own family out there," he said.
He believes the U.S. record of humane treatment of prisoners during the Gulf War will encourage Iraqi soldiers to surrender. The Marines will carry humanitarian rations and have been instructed to be cautious with prisoners and in situations where their own troops might be in the line of fire.
"When in doubt, don't shoot," he said he has told Marines.
Mattis also welcomed the presence of journalists with his units, recalling the famous photograph by journalist Joe Rosenthal of Marines planting the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima during World War II.
"Unsung, the noblest deed will die," Mattis said, quoting an ancient Greek poet.
(Knight Ridder correspondents Mark Johnson, S. Thorne Harper, Meg Laughlin and Andrea Gerlin contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-MATTIS