ASSEMBLY AREA BALER, Kuwait—The deserts of northwestern Kuwait were abuzz with last-minute military preparations Monday as soldiers and Marines waited for orders to cross into Iraq.
Convoys of heavy vehicles and supplies moved around the clock to far-flung base camps, while the thumping rotors of transport and attack helicopters passed overhead. U.S. jets streaked north towards the Iraqi border in pairs at least once every 30 minutes, a more frequent pattern than in recent days.
Officers of the U.S. Army's 20,000-man 3rd Infantry Division at this desert encampment walked through sand-table rehearsals of the planned attack. The division has more than 600 combat vehicles including M1A1 Abrams tanks and M2 Bradley fighting vehicles and will lead the armored thrust into the heart of Iraq.
The division's three brigade combat teams have already practiced breaching Iraq's southern border defenses. Commanders don't expect to encounter much resistance for the first several days.
Meanwhile, Marine Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, commander of a force of 60,000 U.S. Marines and 25,000 British troops, told reporters at his headquarters at Camp Commando that Iraq's military has started to go on a "war footing," moving troops into underground bunkers and dispersing SCUD missiles.
Conway said he's concerned about "bloodletting" between Iraqis and that he needs more bridging materials to ford rivers. He also said he wants to avoid a block-by-block battle for Baghdad.
"If we wound up having to take down the city of Baghdad block by block and house by house, we have failed, because it would take a whole lot more force structure than we have now to do that," he said.
"But my troops are ready to execute—mentally and physically," he added. "I've heard the expression `The way home goes through Baghdad,' so I think their mentality is, `Let's get started.'"
Conway said his staff has received recent reports of "more pronounced" movements by President Saddam Hussein's military units and long-range SCUD missiles "all over the country, in just about all sectors."
"A lot of his forces will go to dispersal sites, prepared underground positions to try to ride out" the opening salvos of a U.S. air campaign, Conway added.
Conway acknowledged that the U.S. Army and Marines have "only a certain number" of bridging materials for Iraq, where the terrain is dominated by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and thousands of irrigation canals. "We're trying to reasonably split those resources with the Army," he said.
He predicted some regular Iraqi army units in southern Iraq would quickly throw down their weapons, but said the fighting could intensify as American troops approach elite Republican Guard divisions ringing Baghdad.
Added the Marine commander: "The period of greatest threat for a chemical attack is when we start to engage Republican Guards. (But) we'll certainly get through it."
Conway predicted Saddam would deploy his main defenses in and around Baghdad, hoping to rack up enemy casualties there to offset the air and armor advantages that the United States and allied forces will have in open terrain.
Conway said that his forces would avoid needless attacks on Iraqi infrastructure and military units. "We will not kill one more Iraqi than we have to," he said.
Military officials say they are not expecting much resistance as they cross the border, which Iraq has manned with poorly trained conscripts and middle-aged men. The plan calls for hitting these guard units with intense artillery strikes over a wide front preceding the attack.
U.S. jets have dropped thousands of leaflets in recent weeks urging border guards to desert their posts. The leaflets advise regular army troops in Basra, Nasiriyah and other southern Iraqi cities simply to remain in their barracks and not oppose the U.S. and British advance.
"From all indications, it looks like all of their ground forces (in southern Iraq) will surrender," said Maj. Scott Rubitsky, 38, executive officer for Task Force 3-7 Infantry, at Assembly Area Baler in the 3rd Division area.
"It certainly takes on a new dimension for us once we get near the Republican Guard," said Lt. Col. Jack Kammerer, commander of Task Force 3-7 Infantry.
At dusk on Monday, M-2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles with the Task Force's "Apache" Company topped off with fuel for possibly the last time before heading north. With war now imminent, soldiers have been ordered to be prepared to move on very short notice.
"We're kinda leaning forward right now ready to execute whatever the president has in store for us," said Capt. John Whyte, 31, Apache company commander.
Soldiers at the 3rd Division's Camp Maine could be seen loading boxes of bottled water and MRE rations into vehicles, while others removed concertina wire around the camp.
In another sign of impending war, 3rd Brigade surgeon Capt. Rodney Gonzalez ordered up blood stockpiles and anti-malarial medicine—doxycycline, a dual use medication also used to treat exposure to chemical weapons—needed for a push into the marsh areas around the Euphrates River. He also issued an order to dispense morphine to front-line combat medics.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-WARPREP