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Journalists eager at fresh chance to travel with troops

MANGAF AREA, Kuwait—They come as nomads on expense accounts. Toting laptops, constantly ringing each other on cell phones, looking for news.

For the first time since the Vietnam War, journalists have won the chance to travel with and work alongside American and British ground troops as they move into combat. And as the war looks increasingly likely to begin in the coming weeks, the reporters are making preparations—getting their shots, packing up flack jackets and helmets and getting ready to move out.

"We're giving you what you asked for," said Air Force Lt. Col. Lawrence Cox, one of several public affairs officers at a Hilton hotel 15 miles outside Kuwait City linking journalists with combat units. He's referring to complaints since the first Persian Gulf War 12 years ago from news organizations that they were getting poor access to combat units.

Hundreds of journalists have descended on Kuwait for the chance. The reporters, photographers and television crews have massed in hotels and apartments near the U.S.-led military installations. More fly in every day.

Their conversations often start with "who are you embedding with?"—shorthand to find out where a seemingly inevitable war with Iraq might take them. The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, the Army's 101st Airborne, the 1st Infantry?

Roughly 500 journalists have been assigned so-called embeddings with various units, some heading to desert encampments as soon as this week. They will sleep in the desert and travel in tanks. They will use video and satellite phones to beam their stories home. Should alarms sound, they'll use masks and suits borrowed from the Pentagon to shield themselves against chemical and biological attacks. (It's up to them to bring their own helmets and flack jackets. Most of them have.)

Photographer Rick Loomis of the Los Angeles Times has been assigned to the Marines—and he's pleased, confident they will end up at the point of the American military spear and produce exciting photos.

Others groan in disappointment as they look at assignments with units in the rear.

"There's some that want to change," Cox said. "But (the action) is not going to be in one place. And where it's going to be is unpredictable. And it will change over time."

In return for access to troops, journalists must promise to adhere to ground rules that essentially prevent them from tipping off the Iraqi military to imminent combat plans. Unlike in previous recent conflicts, the Pentagon will not censor dispatches or control communications.

The ranks also have been opened to the international media, including the Qatar-based al Jazeera satellite television network that has been a conduit for Osama bin Laden pronouncements for years. The network is barred from Kuwait, however, and a company spokesman, Jihad Ali Ballout, would say only that his crew planned to cover U.S. military operations, "but officially we have no facilities in Kuwait."

For $100.76, the reporters can receive inoculations for anthrax and smallpox, though they are not required to do so.

The effectiveness of anthrax vaccinations is in dispute in some circles, and dozens of people in the armed services have been discharged for refusing to take the shots. Several journalists also have reported flu-like symptoms after taking the smallpox vaccine.

Lachlan Carmichael, a reporter for the Agence France-Presse news service, took the anthrax injection but passed on smallpox protection, concerned that he would spread the virus from the sore it produces. Ken-ichi Miura and Hiromi Imaizumi of Tokyo-based Nippon Television went ahead with both shots, although they worried about having a reaction after they'd headed to the desert, lugging their heavy gear through the sand.

"It will be hard enough for us out there," said Imaizumi, a correspondent. "I hope I'm not sick on top of that."

In most countries, traveling journalists seek each other out at bars. In Muslim Kuwait, alcohol is illegal, and the gatherings are generally more sober.

Still there is alcohol. At a barbecue of hamburgers and hot dogs, journalists shared a water bottle of local moonshine and passed around an Herbal Essences shampoo bottle filled with tequila smuggled in from Dubai.

M.E. Sprengelmeyer, a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, mused about how slow it's been since he arrived in Kuwait Jan. 4. "If something's going to happen I would rather it be soon," he said. "I think I'll be pretty safe. I'll be surrounded by a lot of guys with American M-16s."

Still, he says, he does have concerns. "I'm worried about my mom, about her worrying," he said.


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