ON THE IRAQ-KUWAIT BORDER—The waiting is nearly at an end.
Across a third of the desert nation of Kuwait, American troops made their final preparations. Thousands of Army troops and Marines and hundreds of M-1 Abrams tanks, M-2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and combat support vehicles moved to within striking distance of Iraq on Tuesday, poised to launch a massive armored thrust north when the order comes.
Tankers with fuel and water, and huge flatbeds loaded with ammunition, food, spare parts, tents and other supplies rumbled over desert tracks, making the road to Iraq look like a 5 o'clock traffic jam. Air Force jets heading north drew contrails in a clear sky.
At Marine headquarters at Camp Commando, troops packed backpacks and cleaned their rifles one more time for what they hoped would be the start of their road home. Others crowded the Red Cross tent to send messages to family.
Vehicles came and went all day, medical units double-checked the packs that would travel north with the battle and the chaplain's office fielded last-minute calls from field units for extra supplies of prayer books.
In the skies over Iraq, American planes scattered nearly 1.4 million leaflets urging Iraqi soldiers not to fight and pledging that American and British forces want to avoid harming innocent Iraqis. It was the largest informational leaflet drop in 12 years and targeted 20 locations in southern and western Iraq. Among those were three cities thought to be key to early war plans: the southern city of Basra, likely to be the first urban area captured by allied forces; Rumaylah in the southern oil fields; and An Nasiriyah, where an Iraqi army unit defends the Tallil airbase.
On the ground, troops with the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) began taking up attack positions less than eight hours after President Bush declared that U.S., British and allied forces would remove Saddam Hussein and topple his regime if he and his two sons did not leave Iraq within 48 hours.
An hour before troops were ordered to move out toward the border, the Army's ground commander, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, spoke to troops at the 1st Brigade's field headquarters about what lay ahead.
Wallace told about 100 soldiers, sweating under a brilliant desert sun, that they were about to lead a historic mission to liberate Iraq and rid the world of a dictator who threatens the peace of the world with weapons of mass destruction.
He said the coming war in Iraq is not about oil or religion, nor is it a war against the Iraqi people. As he spoke, the area around the 1st Brigade Combat Team's headquarters was packed with armored vehicles outfitted for battle, and the camp teemed with activity as support troops packed gear in their vehicles and prepared to push north.
Wallace told the assembled soldiers to take pride in their mission and to remember it in the years to come. "When it's all over, you'll be sitting in your back yard having a beer and telling your kids stories about what it was like," Wallace said. "They'll be looking at you and they'll know deep down in their hearts that you gave them a wonderful gift. You gave them, and the people of Iraq, a wonderful gift and they'll be proud of you."
Within an hour after the general's visit, troops with Task Force 3-7, the lead maneuver element that will lead the 1st Brigade into Iraq, began moving into attack position. By mid-afternoon, they were stationed very close to the border, awaiting the order to breach the berm, or sand wall, that marks the border between Kuwait and Iraq.
At Area Champion Main in Kuwait, Sgt. Christian Hood, a 27-year-old Texan, was conducting a last-minute class in useful Arabic phrases for soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division from Ft. Bragg, N.C. He was carefully enunciating the phrase "La the-tuh harr-eck," which means "Don't Move!"
At Camp Guardian, a sparse assembly area 20 miles from the Iraqi border, an Army truck loaded with truck parts and biochemical protection suits arrived as soldiers stood ankle-deep in sand eating canned chicken and candied sweet potatoes.
"We're the Napa auto store out here," said Sgt. Ed Fields of Birmingham, Ala., who helped unload the equipment. Fields has the most glamorous residence at the camp: a cargo container with portable fluorescent lights and a few cots. Everyone else lives in green army tents or white nomadic tents sunk in the sand.
The equipment he was unloading arrived in a commercial cargo ship at the crowded port of Shuwaikh near Kuwait City last week. From there, it went to Camp Arifjan, a permanent concrete city of warehouses and shops that belongs to the Army and the Marines. Then, as the likelihood of war increased, soldiers moved the suits and parts to Camp Victory, an Army outpost closer to Iraq. On Sunday night, they moved it to the last outpost in Kuwait, Camp Guardian—signaling that war is very close.
"What I don't know is if we'll start reducing the berm and cross tonight, or if we'll cross tomorrow," said Capt. John Whyte, 31, of Billerica, Mass., the commander of Apache Company, 1-30th Infantry, whose men will lead the 3rd Infantry Division into Iraq.
While they awaited the order to move, the 150 men of Apache company sat outside their Bradleys, some brewing coffee, others eating dinner.
"It's just another day in paradise," said Apache Company First Sgt. Michael "Todd" Hibbs, 36, of Boise, Idaho, as he sat at the back of his M113 armored personnel carrier, munching on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. "We've got weapons, we've got ammo, we got peanut butter and jelly. What more can a man need?"
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Juan O. Tamayo, Jeff Wilkinson and Peter Smolowitz contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-WARPREP