Iraq Under Fire: Been there, done that, ready to go again: With the US Cavalry

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DOHA, Kuwait - It was just an ordinary night, according to Captain Mike Maughan. 'We stayed up half the night watching the football game - we got the whole match with the Buffalos. But the first-sergeant would come in from time to time with the switching channel and during breaks in the game, we'd go over to CNN in Baghdad.'

Just like that. Capt Maughan confessed that watching the anti-aircraft fire over Baghdad was 'a sobering experience', although for many of the men in Alpha company, there was a sense of deja vu. The First Cavalry division are the nearest US troops to Iraq - the frontier lies less than 60 miles north of their base camp at Doha - and there were a few well-worn cliches to be had along the line of M2A2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles lined up on the concrete yesterday morning.

Saddam was 'going to get his ass kicked' and it was time to 'finish the job'. Two years ago - and this from a 23-year-old who watched the slaughter at Muttla ridge in February of 1991 - 'we should have got rid of the guy'. The televised air raids were 'a pretty picture' and so on. Even Alpha company's armour spoke of unfinished business. Still painted on the sides of the Bradleys and Abrams tanks were the inverted V's which identified them as friendly vehicles to marauding allied planes during the land war.

There was that familiar problem of surgical strikes that appeared very unsurgical. Two years ago, it was the civilian dead of the Amariah bunker. On Sunday, it was the receptionist of the Rashid Hotel. 'Nobody likes to see civilian casualties,' Lieutenant Bernard Ethridge remarked. 'But that's kind of a function (sic) of war. It just happens. But if a cruise missile hit that hotel, I don't think the hotel would have so little damage. Our soldiers talked about this; they thought that maybe a dud anti-aircraft round came back on the Iraqis.'

Many heads nodded enthusiastically at this comfortable assessment. Most of Alpha company fought in the Gulf land war, either on the great decoy offensive deep into the Iraqi desert or with Tiger company's advance into liberated Kuwait. 'After we saw the TV pictures from Baghdad last night, I told my men to take a little closer look at their equipment, to check things more carefully,' Capt Maughan said. A soldier cleaning his sniper's rifle on the back of a Bradley listened intently. 'Yeah, it looks just like last time,' he said.

And so it did. Around him lay the nerve-, biological- and chemical-warfare kits, the duffle bags with their patriotic exhortations to 'go get 'em', the vehicles marked 'hell on wheels'. In a few days, most of the First Cavalry's 1,200 men will be sitting up in the sands on the Basra highway staring north, just as they did when the war was supposed to have ended almost two years ago.

As for the Kuwaitis, their government has been doing its best to reassure the population that it has nothing to fear from the man who has vowed retaliation and whom the Information Minister has now dubbed 'the Father of all Stupidity'. The country, he announced, 'is on full alert and I wish to express to our people in Kuwait that everything is under control and there is no reason for concern whatsoever'. No one has mentioned the word Scud. Nor the fact that every outbound flight from Kuwait is suddenly overbooked.

(Photograph omitted)