Desert storm enshrouds mechanised force as it starts to roll

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The Independent Online

Some of it you could see, some you could only sense and some was so completely hidden from view that only the rumble of caterpillar tracks on asphalt indicated its whereabouts.

Some of it you could see, some you could only sense and some was so completely hidden from view that only the rumble of caterpillar tracks on asphalt indicated its whereabouts.

Yesterday afternoon, amid a swirling desert storm that filled the air with sand and grit, the military force put together by George Bush and Tony Blair to oust Saddam Hussein started its march towards Iraq.

On the straight roads that lead north through the flat Kuwaiti desert, long lines of US Bradley fighting vehicle, alongside other armoured vehicles and fuel tankers, headed towards the demilitarised zone and the Iraqi border. Close by, British Challenger tanks also advanced. The pace was slow and methodical.

At the front of the 130,000-strong mechanised force were engineering battalions equip-ped with the bulldozers that will smash through the electrified fences, ditches and sand berms at the border – forcing open an entry point for the columns of armour and the soldiers behind them.

A decade ago, during the last war with Iraq, US bulldozers inflicted some of the most devastating damage to President Saddam's army, burying alive thousands of troops as they stood in the trenches they thought would protect them.

This time, on this side of the border at least, there is a confidence bordering on swagger that once President Bush gives the order to attack, this US-British force will be equally unstoppable. "I just hope it's over very quickly," said Group Captain Chris Markey, a senior RAF logistics officer based at Camp Fox, part of whose job will be to oversee the humanitarian effort in southern Iraq once the initial fighting has been completed.

Across Kuwait the sense of expectation was palpable yesterday and grew as the day wore on – increasing every hour that brought nearer the two-day deadline Washington had set President Saddam on Monday night.

At the airport, groups of people – mostly expatriates – hurried to catch one of the last flights leaving the country. "There are lots leaving," said a man at one of the airport's car-hire companies.

In Kuwait City, the army and the national guard – so ineffective and poorly organised when invading Iraqi forces stormed across the border in 1990, triggering the last Gulf War – were on their highest state of alert.

Armoured vehicles and soldiers armed with heavy machine-guns stood on guard at key locations and on major roads. But there was little obvious hysteria. Shops were busy with people buying dried food and water but it was all being conducted in an orderly fashion – typical of a British supermarket on the day before Christmas.

And while some people – at least those who could afford to – have been buying gas masks in recent days, few seemed to be carrying them last night and most appeared to believe that with 130,000 US and British troops between them and Iraq they had little to fear.

Out at the sprawling camps north of Kuwait City, where the young soldiers from places as far afield as Yorkshire and Minnesota have been gathering, the preparations for this day started some time ago.

Among the Desert Rats' Challenger tank crews of the Queen's Royal Lancers, the more experienced soldiers and officers have been talking with the younger men about what they might expect, about President Saddam and his regime and why they are all here, thousands of miles from home, with a job to do.

"It's important that we discuss these things," explained the Squadron Leader, Major Giles Harrison. "I want them to be completely happy about what we are doing."

Out in the desert there have been other preparations – things that deal with the soldiers' darker prospects, the sort of thing soldiers must think about often, especially on the night before a push to the front. The US Marines at nearby Camp Shoup were told last week to carry ponchos with them – even though no one expects rain.

"You don't want remains sitting in the sun, whether hostile or friendly," they were told by Capt Andrew Hamilton, a logistics officer.

Every man should carry his personal items in the cargo pocket of his fatigues, which can be quickly cut open and emptied if they are killed during combat, he said. He told them to wear two dog tags – one around the neck and one in their boots.

"If they encounter dead Iraqi troops they are to search their bodies for maps or other military intelligence.

"No trophies or anything like that," the captain added. If the US Marines have to bury an Iraqi soldier they should point his head towards Mecca.

Both US and British soldiers say they do not expect much opposition on their initial drive into the south of Iraq, where it is believed President Saddam has based just one division of his poorly equipped and reportedly demoralised army of conscripts.

British and US forces have been so confident that thousands of Iraqi soldiers will not want to fight that efforts have been made to communicate with Iraqi soldiers, telling them how to surrender.

There were signs yesterday that the policy had already started to work after 17 Iraqi soldiers crossed into Kuwait and surrendered to US troops.

Capt Darrin Theriault, commander of the First Brigade of the Third Infantry Division, said: "We anticipate more as this continues to develop."

There had been fears yesterday that the sandstorm that blew up could delay a military strike because of the disruption to helicopters. But meteorologists said they expected the weather would clear.

Yesterday evening, while the order for war had not yet been given, one sensed that the military force that will fight that war was already on its way.

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