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Commander of unit expected to lead Iraq assault says his 20,000 troops are ready for war

KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait—The commander of the U.S. Army division expected to lead the assault on Iraq said Friday that the 20,000 troops under his charge are ready for war whenever President Bush orders military action.

"We're here, and we're prepared to carry out whatever mission the president asks us to do," said Maj. Gen. Buford C. Blount III, commander of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. "We can defend Kuwait or we can go on offensive operations if we are required to do that."

Blount's remarks came amid signs that U.S. forces are preparing for a ground attack. The United Nations reported this week that several U.S. personnel in civilian garb had crossed into Iraq from Kuwait. However, Blount said none of his soldiers had crossed the border in preparation for an attack.

More than 250,000 U.S. and British troops are massed near Iraq for a possible military strike, including more than 125,000 ground troops in Kuwait. The 3rd Infantry Division began training its three combat brigades in Kuwait last March on a six-month rotation. The entire division deployed to Kuwait last fall.

Blount said his troops are in top fighting trim and that morale remains high. Many soldiers have been training in the Kuwaiti desert for six months. Many are on their second deployment to Kuwait in a year.

"We've kept them busy. We've kept them focused," said Blount. "They know there's certainly the possibility of war out there so that's kept them interested in training, and it's kept morale up."

Blount's remarks came only days after 3rd Infantry Division soldiers moved from the massive tent cities that had been their home for the past six months to tactical staging areas where they will make final preparations for war. The move made room for 17,000 soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division who began arriving in Kuwait earlier this week and are waiting for their helicopters and other equipment to arrive by ship.

Two ships carrying the first of the division's attack helicopters and other equipment arrived in port Monday, but rough seas prevented them from being unloaded. Two other ships carrying the balance of the equipment are scheduled to arrive by Monday, said a military official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Once those ships are unloaded, it could take anywhere from eight to 10 days before the 101st is ready for combat, the official said.

With about 270 aircraft at its disposal, including AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters and UH-60 Blackhawk and CH-46 Chinook transports, the 101st also is expected to play a major role in any ground attack. The division can transport its soldiers into battle hundreds of miles by air.

Blount said it was unclear what kind of resistance the 3rd Infantry Division can expect in Iraq, and he gave no details about his tentative plan of attack. Blount said his biggest worry—and that of his soldiers—is the possibility of a chemical or biological attack.

"We're prepared to deal with it," he said, noting that units hit by chemical or biological weapons would decontaminate themselves immediately and "continue on with the mission."

Soldiers will probably go into battle with protective suits already on—with masks, gloves and boots immediately accessible—though "that's not been established yet," he said. During the 1991 Gulf War, nearly all soldiers went into battle that way.

Blount said technology over the past 13 years, especially in night vision and thermal imaging devices, will give his troops a distinct advantage over Iraqi forces, allowing his troops to fight effectively at night and in sand storms, which are common in the spring. Better communications and global positioning systems should cut down on the possibility of U.S. troops accidentally firing on their own units.

Blount said his soldiers have been instructed to minimize damage to civilian and religious sites. If Iraqi soldiers take refuge in mosques or areas where there may be large numbers of civilians, 3rd Infantry Division soldiers will not fire unless they are fired upon, Blount said. He said his soldiers are adequately trained to fight in Iraqi cities if necessary. Urban warfare techniques, along with trench-clearing exercises, have been a major part of training for all soldiers in recent months.

Blount made his remarks to about 85 journalists who will accompany his troops into battle. The Pentagon has promised that journalists will be free to report from the front lines with few restrictions. Blount said he is committed to making the process work.

"We'll have some bumps," he said. "But we'll work through it."


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