ON THE KUWAIT-IRAQ BORDER—U.S. invasion forces rolled to within 100 yards of Iraq and 17 enemy soldiers surrendered preemptively Wednesday as a fearsome array of troops and weaponry stood ready to attack the regime of Saddam Hussein.
The 8 p.m. EST Wednesday deadline set by President Bush for Saddam's capitulation passed without any indication that he fled into exile. The second Gulf War did not immediately erupt, but it was just a matter of time—and not much of it.
"Welcome to the front line," Army Maj. Frank McClary told officers from the 3rd Infantry Division as they stood at a breach in the fence that separates Kuwait and Iraq.
No Iraqis were visible and a U.N. guard post about 500 yards across the flat, featureless border appeared abandoned. Dozens of Bradley fighting vehicles and Humvees idled nearby. Large American flags flapped in the desert wind.
A few miles away, soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division completed a pre-combat ritual: They shaved their heads. "That means they are locked, loaded and ready," said Army spokesman Max Blumenfeld. "This is their D-Day."
U.S. officers said Army engineers cutting holes in the border fence were startled when two Iraqi soldiers surrendered well before hostilities began. The Pentagon reported that at least 17 Iraqis surrendered to allied forces rather than face what confronted them.
Poised in Kuwait, Qatar, the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean and elsewhere: nearly 300,000 U.S. and British troops, more than 1,000 warplanes and 60 warships, thousands of tanks and other armored vehicles, scores of attack helicopters, countless missiles and bombs.
The USS John McCain, a destroyer, and other elements of the battle group led by the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier advanced to within striking distance of Iraq in the Persian Gulf. The McCain, with a crew of 350, carries Tomahawk cruise missiles and other potent weaponry.
Throughout Kuwait U.S. troops stepped up preparations against early Iraqi attacks on staging areas, sabotage of Iraqi oilfields and possible terrorist attacks. At Camp Virginia, 45 miles from the border, concern grew over a possible attack by Iraqi missiles. Many of the 7,000 soldiers there became visibly tense.
"If we have a Scud attack tonight, we need to meet back here after," Col. John Gardner of the 7th Combat Support Group told his staff. "I need to know you're safe."
Beginning Thursday, Air Force personnel on bases in the region will be required to wear flak jackets and helmets whenever they are not inside secure buildings, according to Air Force Capt. John Sheets. They already were carrying gas masks, bio-chemical suits, field gear and antidotes for nerve agents.
In addition, 75 American oil-fire experts began arriving in northern Kuwait in case Saddam blows up the Rumailah oilfields in southern Iraq. In 1991, his forces torched 700 Kuwaiti oil wells.
President Bush did not appear in public Wednesday, but aides said he met twice with his war council—Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and others.
Shortly after the deadline passed, spokesman Ari Fleischer emerged from the White House and issued a 15-word statement that echoed Bush's words to the nation Monday: "The disarmament of the Iraqi regime will begin at a time of the president's choosing."
Bush also officially notified Congress that diplomacy had failed and war was now justified to disarm and oust Saddam.
Spokesman Ari Fleischer spoke of the mission and its possible cost in stark terms. "Americans ought to be prepared for loss of life," he said.
In Baghdad, Saddam and his regime showed no signs of bowing to Bush's final ultimatum to flee into exile.
A towering sand storm blanketed the region Wednesday, but U.S. Marine officers said it would subside by mid-day Thursday. In any event, it was not likely to be a "showstopper" if Bush ordered war, one officer said.
Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of all allied forces in the Persian Gulf region, returned Wednesday to his forward base in Qatar after a meeting in Saudi Arabia. Throughout the day, military planes roared north from Qatar's airfield, apparently bound on surveillance and training missions.
Commanders said they anticipated that the war would be heralded by a mammoth, vicious onslaught of missiles and bombs. In southern Iraq, a barrage of artillery was expected to further soften Iraqi positions before U.S. troops cross the border.
"I don't think our potential adversary has any idea what's coming," Col. Gary Crowder, chief of strategy for the Air Force's Air Combat Command, said in Washington.
Pre-invasion strikes on Iraqi artillery batteries in southern Iraq intensified Wednesday as U.S. planes used precision-guided bombs to attack 12 positions within range of allied forces.
About 10,000 armored and other vehicles were mustered to roll into Iraq from Kuwait, according to Maj. Gen. Buford Blount III, the 3rd Infantry Division's commander. Two hundred of those vehicles could be lost to the rough terrain, he said.
The Iraqi military has about 389,000 troops, but U.S. Army officials believe that only the 15,000 elite Republican Guard troops may be loyal enough to fight to the end.
U.S. officials believe thousands of others will defect during the first hours of bombing.
"Some will defect immediately and go to their homes," said one Army official, who requested anonymity. "Others will wait, knowing that if they turn themselves in as POWs, they'll get a good meal."
Officers with the 82nd Airborne Division reported that 15 Iraqis attempted to surrender at the Kuwaiti border early Wednesday but were refused. Senior Army officials said they could not categorize them as enemy prisoners of war (EPWs) because war had not yet begun.
"I guess they're pre-positioned EPWs," an Army official said.
Standing at the border, the 3rd Infantry Division's McClary said his 1st Brigade Combat Team would secure attack lanes. His soldiers also were equipped with bridging equipment, needed to cross two ditches dug on the Iraqi side of the border.
"Once we cross here, we're rolling," said McClary, 39, of Andrews, S.C. "Once we cross the international border, it's a fight from there."
Apache Company of his 1st Brigade Combat Team was assigned to push up to the border fence, establish a defensive screen and wait for the order.
"I don't know whether to be excited or nervous," Spec. David M. Beebe, 20, of Gadsden, Ala., said as he sat atop an M113 armored personnel carrier. He used binoculars to scan the other side of the border.
"Now, we are waiting for word from higher," said 1st Sgt. Michael "Todd" Hibbs, 36, of Boise, Idaho.
As darkness fell and sentries took to their posts, Hibbs sent a final message of the night to his troops. He told them to get some rest.
"You're going to need it tomorrow," he said. "We've got some long days coming up."
(Knight Ridder correspondents Ruby L. Bailey, Jessica Guynn, S. Thorne Harper, Mark Johnson, Meg Laughlin, Sara Olkon, Peter Smolowitz, Juan O. Tamayo and Jeff Wilkinson contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ