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Marines play at war in road of slaughter

WHO CHOSE the Mutla Ridge as the live-fire training ground of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit yesterday? Lieutenant-Colonel Rick Barry said it was chosen for him. The other Marine officers didn't know, and some of their men were unaware that it was on the highway behind them - the 'highway of death' as the Americans dubbed it at the time - that Iraq's fleeing convoys were roasted out of existence by US planes in the last days of the 1991 Gulf war.

The men of the 15th MEU - 130 of them, weighed down with heavy machine-guns and anti-armour weapons, clanking through the sand with almost as many journalists and cameramen around them - thus set up their tripods and blasted thousands of rounds of ammunition into the dunes just below the ridge where a large and unmarked mass grave contains the bodies of countless Iraqi soldiers. It was a full-scale 'media event' - in the words of a Marine captain - loud enough to wake the dead, certainly the memories of the wet and blasted desert in which Saddam Hussein's conscripts straggled to their doom 44 months ago.

'A lot of our Marines were here at the time and some of the men here now know what happened,' Col Barry said, enthusiastically adding that Marine units helped to trap the Iraqi convoys in which hundreds of Iraqi troops and an unknown number of civilians were slaughtered by A-10 jets after being trapped in a massive night-time traffic jam. Nothing yesterday, however, was allowed to stand in the way of a uniquely American experience, designed - so we were told - to give confidence to the Kuwaiti population and prove to President Saddam that he could never re-invade Kuwait.

And if President Saddam's legions have now withdrawn from southern Iraq, it was not going to stop the US Marines from acting as if they had not. At breakfast time they flew 15 troop-carrying helicopters low and fast over the city of Kuwait. In the new, ever more contagious language

of Marine-speak, Colonel Barry's men talked of their amphibious helicopter-borne landings as an 'evolution' - note the positive, progressive nature of that word - as a 'sustainment exercise', as an 'adventure' and, of course, as a 'photo-opportunity'.

When they arrived in a dust storm below Mutla Ridge, the Americans were thus surrounded by journalists who found to their astonishment that one of the heavily flak-jacketed Marines himself pulled out a massive video-recorder and began filming the journalists filming him. 'I'm taping this so that the people here can get some recognition by their peers,' he said proudly. 'We want to get as much coverage as possible.'

Most of the television crews were at pains to avoid any frames which showed that the Marine 'evolution' was a journalistic circus. It was Mogadishu all over again, camera lenses looming over the crouching young Americans who were helping to save Kuwait.

Captain Stephen Sullivan, eyes turning into cracks against the piercing midday sun, tried to put it into a historical perspective that turned into a weird combination of morality and, of course, more Marine-speak. 'Since this country was basically raped and plundered just a couple (sic) of years ago, and there's a massive troop build-up on the border, that is a distinctive threat to this country and all the nations that represented the (allied) coalition,' he said. 'We are a forward deployed presence that's routine. We think this yields stability with power projection to show our presence and we came out with the friendly nations in the Gulf.'

Colonel Barry, who said his men carried detailed maps all the way through Iraq to the Turkish border, was shrewder. His men were showing President Saddam what might happen behind Iraqi lines if he attacked Kuwait.

'If we were to do this in the Fao peninsula, through the Iraqi rear, it would be disconcerting for Saddam,' he said. Fao, the Iraqi peninsula below Basra that lies only 60 miles from Mutla, was seized by Iranian troops in the 1980- 88 Gulf war, an event Colonel Barry had studied exhaustively, even learning how the Iranians crossed the Shatt al- Arab river by using under-

water bridges.

As for his men, their machine-gun cartridges skipped across the concrete revetments below Mutla Ridge as they charged through smoke grenades across the sand, whooping and shrieking at President Saddam's imaginary legions. It was about as near as they were going to get to shooting Iraqis.