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CAMP BETIO, Kuwait—Forty seconds into their first conversation since he arrived here in January, Lance Cpl. Josh Shaffer's girlfriend asks if he wants to know the gender of their unborn child.

"Sure I do," he answers, and waits for the news. There is a pause, then silence. The British soldiers on military phones around him start cussing that the lines have gone dead. Then the order comes for him to grab his gear and get back with his unit. That was a week ago, and Shaffer, a reservist radio operator from Indiana, still doesn't know whether he'll be father to a son or daughter.

Those in the Expectant Father's Club admit that the excitement at having a baby is tempered by the difficulty of finding out how life is treating the expectant mom. There is no phone service at Marine camps. Mail frequently takes three weeks to arrive. And there's no easily accessible Internet link.

"Becoming a father is a monumental time in a life," says Capt. Mark Boone, who heads Delta Company of the 7th Engineering Support Battalion. "To have that come now, when they're out here defending their country, well, that's a unique sacrifice."

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SULAIBILYA, Kuwait—It's race day, and child jockeys armed with whipping sticks fight camel spit and flying sand on a six-mile track outside the Kuwait Camel Racing Club, 25 miles south of Kuwait City.

The children gallop along as their handlers speed by in dusty pickup trucks and bark out strategy during the 18-minute race. Some riders are barefoot. One boy cries after his camel refuses to stop at the finish line.

Critics of the practice say the jockeys are poor, exploited children from India, the Sudan and Somalia, and that the youths are often injured. Younger children are preferred as riders because they're lighter.

Hussain al Dwas, the president of the club, says only those age 10 or older are allowed to race. In fact, he says, his own 12-year-old son sometimes races. He himself was a camel jockey, he says.

The ancient tradition of camel racing was revived in Kuwait in 1992. And the stakes are high. Thoroughbred camels, often trained by Bengalis, go for some 60,000 Kuwaiti dinars, about $180,000.

The government of Kuwait has sworn to stop the practice. But al Dwas says: "This is the oldest race in the world. It's the thing our grandfathers did."

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CAMP MAINE, Kuwait—One private's sense of weirdness is going up in thick, black plumes of smoke.

"You know how long it takes to turn poop to ashes? It takes one hour and 45 minutes to turn poop to ashes," says Justin Bolling, 24, of Richmond, Va., a private first class with the U.S. Army's 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division.

Bolling knows this because soldiers take turns each day with "poop duty" (the polite way of saying it), burning the excrement collected in the cans inside the wooden latrines.

"You wake up and there's a big lizard next to your cot," he says. "You walk outside and you see the smoke of poop burning.

"What used to be weird is not so weird anymore."

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CAMP BETIO, Kuwait—A four-man Marine fire team, so close that elbows are touching shoulders, glides down a steep, sandy path into a dark bunker. Fingers on triggers, they're ready to snap off shots if anything looks wrong.

It's a training exercise, called MOUT, Military Operations in Urban Terrain. And it's deadly serious. Staff Sgt. Scott Stiles is running the session today for the Marines of Delta Company, 7th Engineering Support Battalion.

"If this company goes in, we might come back with two squads," he says. The company has nine squads. "That's how dangerous it is. In these operations, we can expect an 80 percent casualty rate."

If war with Iraq comes, it's likely that much of the fighting will be house to house. Stiles is drilling the men on how to move, how to hold their weapons, how to allow their eyes to track around a room. Move too quickly and a gun barrel will bob, meaning a moving target will be almost impossible to hit. Move too slowly, and you lose the element of surprise.

For two hours Stiles runs them through drills in a long tent, cots turned on their ends to emulate walls. He walks from room to room with them, watching their technique and breaking it down. Next, he moves the training outside, into a series of bunkers, underground, sandbag-lined shelters. This time, he's positioned an enemy. At first, it's one Marine who waits. "Bang, bang, you're dead. Bang, bang, you're dead. Bang, bang."

The team is in disarray, calling for reinforcements, getting torn to pieces by one hidden sniper. They finally take him out with a pretend grenade.

This is rough play, but then the exercises get harder. Next time through the bunker there are two opponents. Then five. Then seven. Those playing the opposing forces stay on the move, hide in the ceiling, place dummy helmets in obvious hiding spots and then shoot from secret positions.

Cpl. Jeff Anderson is looking on from above, shaking his head.

"You know, this is fun when you're not actually dying," he says. "But when it's for real, well, the odds aren't on our side."

"The lesson is that this is tough," Stiles says. "You're attacking an opponent in a terrain that is unknown to you, but which he is intimately familiar with. That's what you need to remember. This is very tough."

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(Matthew Schofield, Sara Olkon and S. Thorne Harper contributed to this report.)

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

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-NOTES

Iraq

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