ASSEMBLY AREA BALER, Kuwait—Hundreds of U.S. Army troops, tanks and armored vehicles practiced breaching Iraq's southern border defenses in the darkness before dawn Friday, and Marines elsewhere along the border prepared for a Saturday of full-dress chemical weapons drills as U.S. fighters along the border wondered when, or if, the order for war will come.
Soldiers of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division were told to stand down from full battle dress and turn in live ammunition, immediately after columns of M-1 tanks and armored vehicles followed combat-engineer teams along a path through a series of earthen berms, anti-tank ditches and barbed wire like those troops would encounter if they pushed north into Iraq.
The stand-down order was a letdown for soldiers who had come to think an attack was imminent.
"This is the worst part of the job, the waiting," said 2nd Lt. Mike Washburn, 32, a platoon leader in the 3rd Infantry Division's Task Force 3-7 Infantry.
Several miles away and hours later, young Marines voiced the same concern at Camp Commando, the Kuwait headquarters for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, as they joked about whether their dinner of lobster, corn on the cob and salami salad was a "final meal." Officers assured them that the traditional pre-combat meal is steak, not lobster.
Meanwhile, in Kuwait City, the United Nations said it was continuing to pull nonessential staffers from their posts monitoring the demilitarized zone along the Iraq-Kuwait border. The U.N. mission, assigned to monitor the 9-mile-wide demilitarized zone, also suspended helicopter and sea operations in the area and moved some observers who had been stationed in remote bases on both sides of the border to Kuwait City.
Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of all U.S. forces in the area, left the regional headquarters of the U.S. Central Command in Qatar for a trip to the nearby United Arab Emirates. Spokesmen described the purpose of his visit as "bilateral talks." They didn't say how long the visit would be or whether he would return to Qatar or travel elsewhere.
Central Command also announced that pilots flying out of an unnamed air base bombed a radar site about 265 miles southwest of Baghdad. It was the 10th time in 12 days that the Central Command has announced airstrikes in southern Iraq.
A spokesman, Air Force Maj. John Anderson, said Iraq had been moving more military equipment into southern Iraq, where the United States imposed a no-fly zone after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and that U.S. pilots had been responding with more attacks.
"There have been Iraqi forces coming that we perceive to be a greater threat," Anderson said. "We can't hope they won't fire on us. We've got to respond immediately."
Such movement had ratcheted up tension along the border throughout the week. Rumors on Wednesday that Iraq was moving missile systems within range of Camp New York, where the Army's 101st Airborne Division is preparing, prompted an order that soldiers wear their helmets and flak jackets at all times.
Friday, it was hard to tell when war might come. Marines at Living Support Area 1 got showers for the first time in a week. Company commanders toured the area with helicopter crews who will be expected to provide air support in the event of combat.
At Camp Commando, a reserve communications unit from Brooklyn that has many New York-area firefighters and police officers had a ceremony to name three of the camp's dirt streets for fellow reservists who died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. "My chest swells with pride, and yours should, my fellow Marines," said Lt. Col. Tony Lombardo, of the 6th Communications Battalion and a New York City firefighter. The streets were named after Sgt. Maj. Michael Curtin, a police officer, and firefighters Gunnery Sgt. Matthew Garvey and Sgt. Charlie Anaya.
At Assembly Area Baler, it was clear that troops were disappointed when they were told to turn in their ammunition and climb out of combat gear. Ordered on Wednesday to wear full "battle-rattle," including helmet, flak jacket, protective mask and weapon at all times, they'd thought combat might be imminent. Tank, artillery and heavy weapons crews had stocked their vehicles with combat munitions, and ground troops were issued live machine gun, rifle and pistol rounds.
Soldiers also had broken out chemical- and biological-protective gear from vacuum-sealed packaging. They checked the suits to make sure they were properly sized and contained no serious malfunctions. Since the suits are good for only 45 days once they are unsealed, troops saw the move as a sign that an attack could come within days.
The new directive early Friday downgraded the uniform to wide-brimmed desert caps, protective masks and weapons.
"There's some deflated people around here today," said Capt. Richard Bratton, 40, of Mableton, Ga., chaplain for Task Force 3-7.
"I was really amped up to go," said infantry Sgt. Chad Yates, 30, a nine-year veteran from the Cayman Islands. "I've been on six deployments in the last couple of years. I'm just ready to get it over with and never come back here again."
But it was difficult to read accurately what the plans might be on a front that stretches from Marine encampments on the northern Kuwait-Iraq border to Army encampments on the southwest end of the border.
Even as Army forces felt they were standing down, Marines at Camp Commando were told they must wear their bulky chemical-weapons suits all morning Saturday. It will be the first time the Marines there will have put on their suits.
(Juan O. Tamayo, Andrea Gerlin, Peter Smolowitz and Jeff Wilkinson contributed to this article.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): warprep