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Iraq moving troops, artillery closer to Kuwaiti border

KUWAIT CITY—Iraq is moving troops and artillery closer to its southern border with Kuwait and deploying them astride highways in preparation for U.S. attacks, according to military officers with access to the region.

Iraqi forces also are increasing intelligence activities along the demilitarized border, sending tough-looking "civilians" to visit the area, the officers said. U.S. commanders, meanwhile, have dispatched crew-cut American "engineers" to the border, the officers said.

Most of the Iraqi troops look ragged, and some complain that they are eating only bread and aren't being paid, said officers in the 32-nation U.N. Iraq-Kuwait Observer Mission, based on the border.

"Some say their families were put under protective custody" to make sure they fight, "and try to sell us things just to eat," said a UNIKOM officer who traveled recently on the Iraqi side of the 150-mile border.

Tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Kuwait would use the oil-rich sheikdom of Kuwait as a springboard for a ground attack on Iraq if President Bush decides to invade.

U.S. military experts have long predicted that American troops would face little resistance from Iraq's ill-trained and poorly equipped regular army, largely stationed far from Baghdad. More formidable and elite Republican Guard and Special Republic Guard units guard the capital, some 280 miles north of the border with Kuwait.

UNIKOM officers who patrol the 9-mile-wide demilitarized zone, created after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and who travel in southern Iraq provided a firsthand independent look at war preparations and troop morale in the region.

"They are terrified," said one army captain, clad in a blue beret. "They won't surrender at the first shot. They will surrender when they hear the first American tank turn on its engine."

Officers from four UNIKOM member-nations said a few thousand Iraqi troops moved closer to the border in recent weeks and began digging trenches on either side of the three north-south roads in the region.

Iraq also deployed a half-dozen 105 mm artillery pieces and several anti-aircraft guns in firebases surrounded by 15-foot-high sand berms on the northeast end of the border near the port of Umm Qasr, they said.

An army division based in the Iraqi city of Basra, 28 miles north of the border, has established a new combat command post near Umm Qasr, they added.

All the officers asked for anonymity because of their U.N. assignments.

Some Iraqi soldiers were armed with British pre-World War II machine guns, prompting speculation that they may be militiamen.

Iraqi troops mostly go unshaven and wear tattered uniforms, sometimes with sandals instead of boots. Some complain that they have been paid only a half-month's salary in the past three months, the officers said.

Soldiers have told visitors that they receive one pizza-like piece of bread at each meal and sometimes beg food from passing civilians and UNIKOM personnel.

One UNIKOM officer said he had spotted two groups of suspected Iraqi soldiers in civilian clothes and vehicles cruising the DMZ in apparent intelligence-gathering missions.

Four young Iraqi men are slowly building a house in the DMZ on high ground, where they can easily observe western Kuwait, the officer said. Some nights, what appears to be a radio antenna sprouts from the house.

Several groups of American civilians also have visited the DMZ recently, the officer added, "some with crew cuts and young enough to be my son, not the oil engineers they claim to be."

A few thousand Iraqi civilians and even fewer Kuwaiti civilians live on their sides of the DMZ, 3.1 miles wide on the Kuwaiti side and 6.2 miles on Iraq's. Civilian traffic from one country to the other is banned.

Iraqi and Kuwaiti troops are banned from the DMZ, but policemen with side arms are stationed at sandbagged observation posts on either side of the zone.

UNIKOM troops, who come from armed forces in Europe, Africa, Asia and North and South America, are based in the DMZ and can go into Iraq to coordinate with officials there.

U.S. and British troops stay out of Iraq to avoid incidents, however, because American and British warplanes that aren't not attached to UNIKOM regularly bomb anti-aircraft emplacements in southern Iraq.

The peacekeepers' Bangladeshi battalion provides armed security in the DMZ. Other countries provide support services such as road maintenance, mess halls, electricity and water, communications and medical units.

The international border is marked by several layers of sand berms and ditches too wide and deep to be breached by vehicles, plus an electrified fence on the Kuwaiti side.

UNIKOM officers said they had quietly advised their troops to be ready to evacuate the DMZ quickly in case of war and to watch UNIKOM's American members, because they might get advance warning.

"But I don't think there will be much fighting here," one UNIKOM captain said during an interview in a coffee shop. "That waiter there looks more together than any soldier I have seen in southern Iraq."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.