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US Troops in Kuwait Preparing for War With Iraq - 2003-01-03

In a few weeks, thousands more U.S. troops, two aircraft carrier battle groups and additional combat aircraft are scheduled to head to the Persian Gulf in preparation for a possible war with Iraq.

Nighttime in the Kuwaiti desert is breathtakingly cold this time of year. The men of the Bravo Tank Company rub their chilled hands together and peer into the darkness, waiting for the signal to move forward.

There is tension in the air. This exercise, involving more than 12,000 soldiers from the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, is taking place just a few dozen kilometers from Kuwait's border with Iraq.

The order comes and the desert suddenly comes to life with the whine and rumbling of turbine and diesel engines. Seen through night-vision goggles, the desert is instantly transformed into a moving canvas of black shadows in a shimmering green sea, as dozens of tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers move into position for a mock attack on enemy positions.

When the exercise begins, tracer bullets and flares light up the sky. Huge red fireballs rise up in places where combat engineers have used high explosives to clear a path through imaginary minefields. Tanks dance forward, side-to-side, and backward across the desert, shooting their massive guns at pre-positioned targets.

For now, it is all pretend. But the sheer size of the five-day exercises - the largest ever held in the Gulf region - was clearly meant to be a statement about the firepower Iraq will face if Saddam Hussein does not comply with international demands to account for and destroy any weapons of mass destruction.

President Bush says Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction pose a danger of "catastrophic violence" and has repeatedly vowed to disarm Iraq through force if it does not fully reveal Baghdad's past and present weapons programs. Iraq insists it has no such weapons or programs and accuses the United States of war mongering.

U.N. arms inspectors are currently scouring Iraq for evidence that could prove one side's case or the other, and the Bush administration says war is not inevitable. But many soldiers here say they remain skeptical that the standoff can be resolved peacefully.

Private First Class Robert Hawkins says he does not think the United States has any other choice but to act militarily. "I decided a long time ago that the only way Saddam Hussein would be taken out of power is through military force, and he is someone who needs to be out of power," he said. "I'm ready. I've been trained. I know what I'm doing and I'll face the consequences."

Others are not so eager to engage in a war that the Pentagon acknowledges may not be so easily won. U.S. intelligence officials have warned that Iraq is preparing to destroy its own oil fields and food supplies to create a humanitarian crisis that could stymie any U.S. advance and turn public opinion against the war. The officials also predict the Iraqi leader will use biological and chemical weapons against U.S.troops and their allies in the region, if he believes he is about to fall.

Sergeant Anthony Walsh admits the possibility of facing a chemical and biological attack scares the soldiers. "I don't think anyone really wants to see one, but if it comes to it, I have to obey orders," said Sergeant Walsh. "I have every confidence that the soldiers that we have can complete the mission and win the fight."

While the number of U.S. troops and the amount of equipment in the Gulf right now are substantial, analysts say they are still short of what would be required for an invasion. Last week, the U.S. military announced it was mobilizing to rapidly build its capacity in the region.

Some of the forces being sent are meant strictly for combat, including infantry units, warships and strike aircraft. Others, such as engineering and support teams, will prepare for the arrival of additional combat units in the coming months. The Pentagon says it believes such deployments will show U.S. resolve while reinforcing diplomacy.

In Kuwait, senior U.S. military officers say the troops and facilities in place here are already well prepared for a showdown with Iraq.

To guard against the possibility of Iraqi missile attacks, the Pentagon has positioned Patriot missile interceptors near the border to blast warheads out of the sky. In addition to training exercises, the troops regularly run drills to deal with a possible chemical and biological weapons attack.

The U.N. inspectors searching for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction are due to submit their findings to the U.N. Security Council on January 27.

For the U.S. troops here, that means they will soon find out whether their desert exercises were just war games, or a trial run for the real thing.