ON THE KUWAIT-IRAQ BORDER—After months of waiting, the deadline for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to resign and leave the country came as something of an anticlimax for the 150 men of Apache Company, who will lead a U.S. invasion of Iraq.
At about 2:30 p.m. local time Wednesday, they raced through a freshly cut passage in a 12-foot-high defensive sand berm and past a simple red sign with white lettering that announced in Arabic and English that the armored column had entered the demilitarized zone between Iraq and Kuwait. A couple of soldiers snapped photographs through the turrets of their vehicles.
Then the lead vehicle of what the commander called "the lead force of the lead brigade of the lead division" of the invasion of Iraq stopped a couple of hundred yards from an electrified fence and dual rows of concertina wire that marked the border. And there it waited.
The Kuwaitis already had cut a passageway through the wire, which was a surprise, said Maj. Frank McClary, 39, of Andrews, S.C., the operations officer for Task Force 3-7 Infantry. Plans were for U.S. combat engineers to do that job.
As the day wore on, most soldiers of the 30th Infantry, Task Force 3-7, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division gathered around the backs of the vehicles, a few shucking off their helmets and heavy flak vests. Some of them pawed grubbily at MREs. Others simply chatted. A few dozed in the backs of their vehicles.
In the rear of one Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a soldier leafed through a copy of the men's magazine Maxim, a favorite among the infantry for its pictures of scantily clad women.
A few gave thumbs-up signs to a couple of passing reporters who had walked up to take a closer look at the border. Some of them sounded anxious to get the war started.
"So, what's it look like?" asked one. "When are we gonna go? Are we gonna do it or not?"
As darkness fell, with a wan moon barely visible through cloudy skies, Apache Company troops moved their vehicles into defensive positions. When word arrived that at least 17 Iraqi soldiers had surrendered to U.S. soldiers about 12 miles to the northeast, the soldiers built a holding pen, in case more decided to give up during the night.
Sentries kept watch on the dark desert landscape, scanning for movement. Most men bedded down. A few wondered about the fate of the Iraqi soldiers they would encounter on the other side of the border within the next couple of days.
"Can you imagine being in their shoes right now?" asked 1st Lt. Blaine Kusterle, 24, from St. Petersburg, Fla. "Knowing what's coming at them."
But most men just slept. Once the order comes to roll across the border, they know the most sleep they'll get is maybe a few hours a night.
With the men buttoned up in their vehicles for the night or snuggled in sleeping bags on the sand, company and battalion radio nets crackled with occasional traffic.
Around 8 p.m. local time, Lt. Col. Jack Kammerer, Task Force 3-7 Infantry commander, came on the radio to thank his men for a job well done.
"You came up here and secured an international border on short notice," Kammerer said. "You are the lead force of the lead brigade of the lead division. I know it doesn't sound like a big deal to most of you. But you've done a good job."
The radio traffic eventually died out as men drifted off to sleep. Only sentries were left awake.
One Bradley commander called in with a report of a suspicious heat signature through his thermal night sights. The source appeared to be a small campfire about 3 miles across the border to the west. Possibly Iraqi scouts. Possibly deserters waiting for morning so they could give up. Possibly just a shepherd bedding down for the night. It was unclear. But the sentries kept watch just in case.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-BORDER