US Troops Watch, Wait In Kuwait
Rapid deployment against Iraq worked. But when 35,800 Americans can head home is as ephemeral as the desert wind.
IN THE CENTRAL KUWAITI DESERT
Some things remind American soldiers in Kuwait they are on the "front line" facing Iraq. Almost all of them have been vaccinated for the biological agent anthrax, and a field chaplain closes a staff meeting with the prayer "We ask for Your protection and guidance. Amen."Skip to next paragraph
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But the same meeting, held in a green tent on a wind-swept patch of desert turned into an armored battalion base, illustrates how far away seems the February crisis, when military action against Iraq seemed inevitable.
As the Pentagon and the White House wrestle with the questions of if, when, and how to begin pulling troops out of the Persian Gulf, soldiers on the ground have eased into a daily routine and look toward going home.
Some 35,800 American troops are in the region now, double the usual number. Most are kept in a difficult-to-sustain high state of alert. Yesterday, a group of US senators back from a fact-finding trip to the region said they found the state of the troops' morale to be extremely low. The White House says President Clinton will decide whether to reduce forces soon. Yesterday a senior US military source said the USS Independence, one of two US aircraft carriers in the region, would be rotated out in late May but would be replaced within three weeks of that date.
So far, these troops have not been asked to go to war. But they have already accomplished one significant mission. Senior commanders say that the speed with which troops moved from American bases to positions in the Kuwaiti desert in February has been unprecedented. They say that success has validated the Pentagon's plan to pre-positioning military equipment in the Persian Gulf.
But on the ground, such mega-issues aren't the first thing on soldiers' minds. Anything to boost morale is. Field commanders hear reports about the upcoming barbeque night, the makeshift softball league, and the need for more fire extinguishers in the primitive toilets. Night-fishing trips are under way, and a five-day work week is taking shape.
Keeping up momentum
On the 76th day of the deployment Tuesday, the 3-69th Armored Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Mike Altomare, spoke to his officers about safety. There were too many speeding vehicles around camp, he warned, and not wearing seat belts "continues to be a problem."
Considering the energy-charged circumstances into which these troops arrived - expecting combat within days of rushing to the Middle East from the United States - keeping the momentum is now a top priority.
"It's been a challenge to keep the soldiers focused," says Colonel Altomare. "But the reason we are here is because the guy up north [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] was messing around, and there is no reason to think he won't do it again."
Some soldiers speak almost wistfully about Feb. 23, when "peace broke out" as United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan made a deal with the Iraqi leader to allow the UN to continue inspecting sites inside Iraq.
To keep rumors of imminent departure in check, Altomare gathers all his hundreds of soldiers together every 10 days and tells them all that he knows about going home. So far, that hasn't been much.
The departure from the United States was emotionally charged, he says, because of threats of war from both Washington and Baghdad.
"It is the first time in 19 years of service," Altomare says, "[that] my wife cried when I left."
"There is always a feeling of adrenaline upon arrival, because it looks like there will be military action," says US Army Maj. Gen. Robert Ivany, deputy coalition task force commander in Kuwait. "The provocative noise out of Iraq has gone down, but there is a degree of unpredictability to keep in mind."
Though soldiers can't wait to leave their hot desert encampments, he says, "they understand that the first American on a plane [home] is a signal to the world."
The other signal to the world from this emergency deployment, however, showed itself in the buildup to the February crisis.
For years, American commanders have had to negotiate the political minefields of the Gulf as they kept a force of some 20,000 troops in the region to enforce the US policy of "dual containment" of Iraq and Iran and to protect oil-rich allies such as Saudi Arabia.
Despite expressing official gratitude for the support, some of these allies also must contend with an Arab perception that American troops are here to stay and that they may prove disruptive.